Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse (Studies in Crime and Public Policy)

Clear, Todd R
Open University Press, Buckingham
2009
9780195387209 (pb)

Order this book?


Cover of book Todd Clear's main focus is the steady increase in the prison population of the United States of America (USA) since the 1970s despite declining crime rates which he argues removes poor people from their neighbourhoods. He explains two conventional ways to fight crime: incapacitation, which uses prisons as a means of crime control, and deterrence, which employs the threat of punishment to discourage people from committing crime. However, he notes that incarcerated people commit crimes when they are released, which indicates social factors leading to crime, instead of vice versa. He explains that mass incarceration in the USA is mostly concentrated in poor areas, and affects young, black and impoverished men with substantial deficits of human and social capital (p. 60). Although fewer women go to prison, the collateral damage this causes to their families and neighbourhoods is greater than that of their male counterparts. Clear discusses how mass incarceration affects individuals, families and their communities. He acknowledges the importance of informal social control in achieving public safety through voluntary associations, kin and friendship networks, and local organisations which can reduce crime. Informal social control depends on 'collective efficacy', which is the capacity of a group of people to act together based on shared understanding. However, in economically disadvantaged areas, normative consensus cannot be established if there is no stability or interpersonal relationships. He argues that 'coercive mobility', the removal of large populations from a poor neighbourhood, affects community dynamics, which disrupts social networks and diminishes community stability (p. 74). 'Coercive mobility' increases crime in poor areas, leading to social disorganisation, while reducing informal social control and residential stability. Imprisoning young people of parenting age leads to the removal of parents, income earners and interpersonal support. High turnover and residential mobility can also isolate people, which reduces the collective sentiment beneficial for pro-social community action. Prison creates gaps in people's lives and stigma while it also reduces their life chances. In addition, high rates of incarceration create holes in neighbourhoods through the lack of parents, leading to family disruption and properties devoid of effective guardians. Clear argues that the prison can never be a substitute for adults, family members and neighbours in making a place safe (p. 91).

He also provides the views of those who live in poor neighbourhoods experiencing mass incarceration. For this purpose, he chooses Frenchtown and South City in Tallahassee, which are mostly populated by African Americans and both characterised by discrimination, economic inequality and political isolation. They also share a similar experience of post-Civil War segregation and the tumultuous civil rights period, fast-paced economic change and political conflict, and a reputation of higher than average rates of crime and disorder (p. 122).

Clear proposes policy to fight increasing incarceration rates and change the current racially-biased criminal justice system. He outlines the need for sentencing reform, to reduce the number of admissions and length of stay in prisons, especially for drug-related crimes (p. 186). He discusses the need for 'community justice' based on community life, social and economic equality, racial and ethnic tolerance and the strength of structures of opportunities. He criticises the Republican theory of justice which focuses on people acting autonomously in their own self-interest. Rather, he wants to shift from individual to systemic patterns, from individual to social norms, from individual to the common good. He proposes liberal political community based on liberty and autonomy within mutual citizenship. In the appendix, he also offers a strategy for community justice, by hypothesising a community justice initiative in an extremely poor community.

This book adopts a sociological approach which examines the underlying social mechanisms of a social phenomenon, and even in this respect, it deserves readers' attention. Detailed use of rich quantitative and qualitative data supports its hypothesis. It not only informs, but also tries to persuade the reader, and in this respect, has a policy-oriented approach calling for action. Although this book mainly addresses American readers, it is relevant to a wider audience due to the common characteristics of the problem defined and the solution proposed. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in crime, punishment, and community justice.

Basak Tanulku
University of Lancaster