The Duck of Minerva

Our Carceral State

12 January 2011

Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman have published a study in the American Political Science Review on the relationship between contact with the US criminal justice system and disaffection from US government and politics. They find that even after controlling for other important factors, contact with the criminal justice system is a significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.

Contact with the criminal justice system is greater today than at any time in our history. In this article, we argue that interactions with criminal justice are an important source of political socialization, in which the lessons that are imprinted are antagonistic to democratic participation and inspire negative orientations toward government.

Since you won’t be able to access the article unless you subscribe to the journal, and since there’s a lot of interest in the blogosphere right now in how social scientists generate probabilistic causal claims and what can be inferred from them to specific cases, let me explain a little bit how the authors conducted the study. The study is based in large part the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (aka Add Health), a study that follows youth over their life course and provides a nationally representative sample of school-age people in the United States. The survey contains statistically significant data on thousands of US citizens, including their criminal justice histories, plus data on political attitudes and practices. To ensure that other variables aren’t explaining both contact with the criminal justice system and political beliefs/practices, the authors control for age, sex, household income, education, stability of family relations, employment, citizenship, and minority status among others things. (They also used a second source of data specifically on fragile families to corroborate their findings.)

The reported results: contact with the US criminal justice system is strongly related to a much decreased likelihood of voting or registering to vote in elections, of stated trust in government, and of civic engagement generally (though those results were weaker due to poor data):

“People who experienced an encounter with criminal justice institutions were much less likely to believe that it was important to vote, serve on a jury, volunteer time to community service, or serve in the military, and this effect grew starker with more severe encounters… those who experience punitive interventions – from police questioning to incarceration – are much less likely to seek out civic society and participate in cultural, social or political groups.”

While these results may or may not be especially counter-intuitive, Weaver and Lerman point out studies of the effects of policy on civic engagement and beliefs have focused much more the redistributive rather than punitive policies so far, and this should obviously change. I hope political scientists will find a way to examine whether these relationships hold true cross-nationally as well, since the only inferences we can make from this study concern the US.

[cross-posted from Lawyers, Guns and Money]