Most Prisoners Come From Few Neighborhoods

‘Incarceration hot spots’ inculcate a vicious brand of hopelessness.

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By Bruce Bower, Science News

ATLANTA—Crime rates have dropped in the United States over the past 15 years, yet prison populations have soared. The U.S. incarceration rate now exceeds that of other industrialized nations by five times or more, with almost 2.3 million people behind bars and another 5 million on parole or probation.

A major reason for this apparent paradox has gone largely ignored, according to Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson. Certain disadvantaged sections of cities have acted as incarceration hot spots in the midst of a general downturn in crime, Sampson reported at a press conference August 16 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

Ballooning incarceration rates in these poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, especially among young men, create a sense of collective cynicism and fatalism that fuels further misconduct and imprisonment, Sampson said. He and sociology graduate student Charles Loeffler of Harvard describe their findings, based on surveys and crime-data analyses of Chicago neighborhoods, in the summer Daedalus.

“Mass incarceration in the United States has a deep local concentration in relatively few disadvantaged communities,” Sampson asserted.

There’s an upside to this bleak situation, commented Harvard sociologist Bruce Western. Cash-strapped states are now willing to explore innovative, scientifically tested methods to reduce repeat offending.

One such approach in Hawaii targeted men on probation considered likely to commit new offenses. Frequent, random drug tests backed up by swift, short jail stays for infractions substantially deterred these men from using drugs and committing new crimes.

Programs like this cost about $3,000 annually per person, compared with an average of $30,000 to imprison one person for a year, Western said.

Chicago crime data for 1990 to 1995 show that a large majority of prison and jail populations came from two poor, black sections of the city, Sampson and Loeffler found. During that time, overall rates of crime and violence declined in Chicago while incarceration rates rose in those two areas.

Following these encouraging crime reductions, Chicago officials closed massive public housing units in the two high-crime, high-incarceration areas because they were considered breeding grounds for drug dealing and violence.

But between 2000 and 2005, the geographic location of each incarceration hot spot in Chicago shifted slightly to the southwest as former public housing residents sought new homes. Incarceration rates in the two new hot spots remained about the same as those in the old ones from a decade earlier, Sampson said.

Interviews of almost 8,000 Chicago residents between 1995 and 2002 identified intense cynicism about the legal system and hopelessness about future prospects among residents of the city’s incarceration hot spots.

Teenagers and children expressed some of the grimmest attitudes. “Many kids said they didn’t expect to live past age 25 or to avoid ending up in prison,” Sampson said.

Researchers need to focus on how the concentration of incarceration within certain poor neighborhoods undermines the quality of life for everyone living there, he added.

Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots, Sampson emphasized. In earlier research, he and his colleagues found a link between reduced violence in some poor Chicago areas and a willingness among neighbors to act as mentors to local children and otherwise intervene on behalf of the common good.

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