By Gloria Zhang

SUMMARY

Mass incarceration is traditionally associated with and studied in the context of inequalities in large inner cities. Jessica Simes, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, examines the inequalities associated with mass incarceration in disadvantaged urban and suburban areas in her paper, Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration. Professor Simes finds that while it is true that poor and minority inner-city neighborhoods have higher incarceration rates, research also needs to take into consideration mass incarceration in disadvantaged urban and suburban areas in order to gain a broader understanding of mass incarceration in the spatial context.1

Professor Simes’ study uses data from prison admissions in Massachusetts to explore her hypothesis that mass incarceration affects more than large metropolitan areas. Because most research and data on mass incarceration are focused in large American cities, observers may get the impression that the correlation between mass incarceration and neighborhood conditions only exist within large cities.2 Professor Simes provides two spatial perspectives of incarceration: the urban inequality perspective and the social control perspective. From the urban inequality perspective, neighborhood incarceration rates in urban inequality can be best anticipated by dense underprivileged population and violent crimes.3 There is a consistent pattern of higher rates of arrests in segregated urban areas.4 The social control perspective finds the rate of imprisonment is directly correlated with sentencing policies directed at social problems associated with poor urban areas.5 The hypothesis drawn from both perspectives is that in the context of a statewide examination, the majority of areas that have high prison admissions are poor and segregated neighborhoods, regardless of whether they are found in cities or suburban areas.6

Professor Simes’ research controlled for different measures of crime, drug arrests, and spatial autocorrelation, and she still found that prison admissions are most concentrated in disadvantaged and racial minority communities, particularly non-Hispanic black communities.7 She also found that there is evidence that prison admissions are deeply spatially concentrated, meaning that there are higher rates of prison admissions in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods. Professor Simes suggests that in the future, researchers could study the different stages during a criminal processing (e.g. filings, prosecutions and sentencing) that are associated with crime to better understand why incarceration rates are growing in nonurban communities.8 The outliers in the study suggest that smaller cities are experiencing similarly concentrated disadvantage to large cities. Professor Simes suggests that in order to make better policies to mitigate the impact of mass incarceration on communities, the high concentration of disadvantaged people in small cities have to be accounted for.

ANALYSIS AND REVIEW

Professor Simes’ research reminds people to look outside of large urban areas when thinking about mass incarceration. It is an internal bias that often goes unnoticed when we look at studies and talk about mass incarceration. The outliers of the research show that it is necessary to include the impoverished segregated places in smaller urban and suburban neighborhoods as well. The research further confirmed that mass incarceration has the biggest impact on poor and segregated minority neighborhoods, regardless of the size of the city. In some ways, the research did not find anything new; rather it emphasizes the importance of looking at mass incarceration within a larger context and further confirms that mass incarceration disproportionately affects poor neighborhoods. 

One of the most important findings in this research is that regardless of the size of a city, it is the segregated, poor, minority communities that are affected by mass incarceration the most. How people think about urban chaos led to framing activities of poor city residents as criminal.9 For example, homelessness and drug use among the poor is considered a crime and a security problem. Inner-cities appear to be more dangerous because people associate disorder with poor city residents. Ibram X. Kendi, an American author and professor at American University, suggests the idea that it’s not racist ideas that led to racist policies, but discriminatory practices and racist policies that led to racist justifications and racist ideas.10 A similar idea is echoed in Pattillo’s article Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City on crime and gentrification. Due to deeply rooted and concentrated disadvantage, public housing residents who also want to fight against crime in the same neighborhood as new and old homeowners are less successful in doing so because the neighborhood they live in is the problem.11 It is a vicious cycle that keep poor communities impoverished. The more people focus on mass incarceration in large urban areas, the more that population is targeted. Simes finds that by expanding the scope of the problem from large inner cities to small urban and suburban neighborhoods, it shows that the root cause is not big urban cities but disadvantaged segregated places everywhere.   

POLICY RECOMMENDATION

Professor Simes’ findings, which conclusively illustrate that mass incarceration disproportionately affects poor and segregated neighborhoods, have the potential to influence public housing policy and in a variety of ways. For instance, is appropriate to consider the question, “Does moving out of a concentrated-poverty neighborhood substantially improve outcomes for the poor who move?”12 When talking about mass incarceration and spatial segregation, the biggest policy area that comes to mind is public housing. The root of the problem is poverty and segregation, and policymakers need to think about what poor households need within a community in order to decentralize concentration of segregated and impoverished neighborhoods. Research shows that families who experience poverty often are forced to move to even higher-poverty neighborhoods, which in turn increases the concentration of poverty rather than decentralizing it.13 When making policies in efforts to give more autonomy to segregated communities, policymakers need to consider people’s need to access transportation, childcare and social support from the community.  

In order to more effectively target criminal justice reform in the United States, we have to change our perspective in the way we deal with social problems in black communities. In a short animation published by The Atlantic called “The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality,” the video talks about the history of how the criminal justice system is used to deal with problems in the African American communities.14 Mass incarceration is no longer about any individual, but how the criminal justice system is targeting a whole social group. Policymakers need to dig deeper into the root cause of mass incarceration and consider the long history of oppression and racism in America. A representative contrast is the rhetoric behind the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s and the opioid crisis today. The ways the government has dealt with the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis are very different. It reflects how the way social problems are unjustly dealt with within Afrian American communities. The crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s disproportionately affected  minority populations and people of color. The government imposed tough on crime policies and there was a huge sentencing disparity that targeted colored communities. On the other hand, the opioid crisis is found more commonly among the white working class, and there is more compassion behind dealing with the issue. People with opioid addictions are often not seen as criminals, but as victims. Society and government institutions are more sympathetic towards opioid users than people who were addicted to crack. When dealing with a social problem, policy makers must examine their own biases and give the same supportive and compassionate help across demographics.

Gloria Zhang is a second-year MPA student at Wagner, specializing in Advocacy & Political Action. She is also the chair of Wagner Students for Criminal Justice Reform.

  1.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 513-533. 
  2.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 515. 
  3.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 515. 
  4.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 515.
  5.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 515.
  6.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 518. 
  7.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 529.
  8.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 530. 
  9.  Simes, Jessica T. “Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 530.
  10.  Kendi, Ibram X. 2018. “The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial.” The New York Times. 
  11.  Pattillo, Mary. Black on the block: The politics of race and class in the city. University of Chicago Press, 2008. Chapter 7.  
  12.  Galster, George. “Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Places Matters in Modern America”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 221, Chapter 13.
  13.  Galster, George. “Neighborhood and Life Chances: How Places Matters in Modern America”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 232, Chapter 13.
  14.  “The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality”, The Atlantic, 2015. 

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