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Punishment and Inequality in America

NCJ Number
Bruce Western
Date Published
261 pages
Chapters in this book discuss the "Scope and Causes of the Prison Boom" in America and "The Consequences of Mass Imprisonment."
The book begins by calculating incarceration rates for recent cohorts of young Black and White men. Black men born in the late 1960s are more likely to go to prison than to finish a 4-year degree or serve in the military. One-third of Black men with only a high-school education have prison records. Although crime rates increased significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, and street violence became a serious problem for poor communities, policymakers could have responded in many different ways. By building more prisons, severely criminalizing drug-related activity, mandating prison time, and lengthening sentences, legislators chose a punitive course that abandoned the long-standing ideal of rehabilitation. The poor marriage and job prospects of former inmates partly explains why mass imprisonment reduced crime only slightly, because it tended to fuel criminogenic influences in the families and communities affected by the high rates of incarceration among young Black men. It is likely that policymakers and voters will continue to support the incapacitative and retributive objectives of imprisonment. On the other hand, under economic constraints on public funds due to the economic recession, there is an incentive to cut massive spending on prison construction and operating costs, which tends to force criminal justice decisionmakers to reduce prison admissions and sentence lengths. In addition, a more rehabilitative approach to corrections is being promoted among professional criminal justice policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. Still, as opportunities for job-related economic advancement recede, the self-sustaining character of mass imprisonment as an engine of social inequality makes it likely that it will remain a significant feature and product of poverty and race relations in America. Extensive tables and figures, approximately 300 references, and a subject index