Societal Implications of Incarceration Essay

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The United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country. Increasingly, the criminal justice system affects not only the lives of convicted offenders individually but also the relative standing of demographic groups and outcomes in the country as a whole. This entry deals with the societal implications of the criminal justice system in the United States, specifically political participation, labor market performance, and black-white wage inequality.

The societal impact of the criminal justice system rests primarily on its size. In 2005, over 7 million individuals were under the supervision of the criminal justice system: 1.4 million in prisons, 0.7 million in local jails, 4.2 million on probation, and 0.8 million on parole. Millions more are identifiable as ex-convicts to authorities and employers. The risk of involvement with the criminal justice system is unequally distributed. Over 90 percent of the incarcerated population is male, most are younger than 45, and nearly half are black. The impact of the criminal justice system on these over-represented groups is naturally greater.

Felon Disenfranchisement

Most states in the United States disenfranchise incarcerated felons as well as nonincarcerated felons on probation or parole. A large minority of states additionally disenfranchises ex-felons after the conclusion of their sentence, and three states disenfranchise all felons for life. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, place no restrictions on the voting rights of convicted offenders, whereas some other states disenfranchise both felons and misdemeanants. Felon disenfranchisement is more common in the United States than in other democratic countries, where it is typically restricted to imprisoned felons for the duration of incarceration. Only Belgium, Chile, Finland, and Germany also disenfranchise (some) felons after release from prison. Although the number of states that disenfranchise ex-felons has sharply decreased since the 1950s, the number of affected individuals has increased because of an increase in the number of offenses classified as felonies and the increased probability of conviction in the sentencing stage of criminal trials. As a result of their over-representation in the criminal justice system, about 12 percent of black men nationwide had lost their right to vote as of 2004.

The impact of felon disenfranchisement on political outcomes hinges on three factors: the size of the disenfranchised population, voter turnout, and political preferences. About 5.3 million current and former felons (2.5 percent of the voting age population) were ineligible to participate in the 2004 presidential election. Approximately 40 percent of these individuals were ex-felons no longer under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Research suggests that voter turnout rates would be an estimated one-third lower among disenfranchised felons than in the general population. The number of votes prevented by felon disenfranchisement, therefore, is large. (Some researchers argue that the apparent decline in voter turnout since the 1970s may be due primarily to felon disenfranchisement: If disenfranchised citizens—mostly felons— are subtracted from the voting age population, which forms the denominator of conventional voter turnout rates, participation rates in the voting-eligible population are essentially constant over time.) One analysis concludes that as a result of the strong preference for the Democratic Party among disenfranchised felons, the 2000 presidential election would have been decided for Democrats in the absence of felon disenfranchisement. No other presidential election, however, is estimated to have hinged on felon disenfranchisement, although a small number of Senate races in the past 30 years may have.

Labor Market Participation and Black-White Wage Inequality

Official labor market statistics in the United States are calculated on the basis of the civilian non-institutionalized population and exclude the incarcerated population. Because economically disadvantaged individuals face much greater risks of incarceration, official statistics may present an incomplete picture of labor market performance.

For example, the employment-population ratio (EPR), which measures labor force utilization, would be lower if inmates were included in the denominator of the rate and counted as nonemployed individuals. The incarceration-adjusted EPR for young black male high school dropouts would have been almost 20 percentage points lower than the official rate in the late 1990s, whereas the incarcerated-adjusted EPR for young white male high school dropouts would have been 6 percentage points lower. The impact is smaller but still sizable for working-age men (4.9 and 0.9 percentage points difference for black and white men, respectively), but not meaningfully different for the national EPR. (Note that this EPR adjustment reverses the logic of the voter turnout adjustment mentioned previously: Whereas the official EPR excludes inmates and the adjustment includes them, conventional voter turnout rates include inmates and the adjusted rates exclude them.)

Mass incarceration also affects conventional measures of black-white wage inequality. Incarceration is selective of individuals with low earnings potential, and it removes relatively more black men than white men from the labor market and hence from official statistics. To account for the economic selectivity of incarceration, researchers have estimated inactivity-adjusted wage distributions, which impute hypothetical wages to nonworking individuals, including inmates of prisons and jails. These statistics are intended to estimate the wage distribution that would prevail if everybody earned wages in the market and nobody was inactive (neglecting general equilibrium effects). One such analysis found that selective labor market inactivity (including incarceration) depressed conventional measures of black-white inequality in log mean earnings by 20 percent among working-age men in 1999 and by almost 60 percent among men ages 22 to 30. The apparent reduction of black-white wage inequality among young men since the mid-1980s, conventionally attributed to economic gains among blacks, may be entirely due to the removal of young black men with low earnings potential from the labor market through incarceration.


  1. Manza, Jeff and Christopher Uggen. 2004. Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Pattillo, Mary, David F. Weiman, and Bruce Western, eds. 2004. Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration. New York: Russell Sage.
  3. Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage.

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