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Harvard Sociologist Bruce Western, Ph.D., Discusses Rising Incarceration Rates in the United States

By Margaux Kay LaPointe, '11, and Kate McAvey, '11

The Department of Sociology and the Villanova Social Sciences Forum welcomed to campus distinguished sociologist Bruce Western, Ph.D., from Harvard University, on Tuesday, April 8. Western spoke about the causes and effects of soaring incarceration rates in the United States, particularly how this phenomenon has affected minority communities and families, in the Connelly Center Cinema.

Western explained that his research over the last two years has focused on “trying to understand the causes, the scope, and the consequences of the American penal system in the last 30 years.”

Western began the lecture with a quote from T.H. Marshall: “Citizenship is the basic human equality associated with full membership of a community… Citizenship has become the architect of legitimate social inequality.” By using statistics and analysis, Western illustrated how the idea of citizenship has narrowed during the last 30 years.

The first statistics that Western shared with the audience demonstrate the drastic rise in the number of people incarcerated in the United States. In the early 2000s, the incarceration rate was 0.7 percent. In contrast, European countries with societies similar to the United States had a rate of 0.1 percent. (In the 1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States was 0.1 percent.) The incarceration rate in the United Stated is 10 times higher than the rate in Europe, and this radical increase has occurred during the past 30 years. Currently, there are 7 million people under some kind of criminal justice supervision, Western said. Although these statistics are quite astonishing, they are not the most astounding facts Western shared. The incarceration rate of black males between 22 and 30 years of age is 20 times higher than the rate of all males. One third of non-college black males will have served time in prison.

These young black men experience social stratification. “Going to prison causes an enduring status that affects a whole array of life changes,” Western said. “Social ties to legitimate employment” are broken. This continued stigma in society makes “inequalities of citizenship seem natural,” Western said. “[They] seem due to the defects of the individual.”

With incarceration rates so high in the United States, Western explored some of their effects on American society. Western explained that these high rates cause a phenomenon that he labels “invisible inequality.” When looking at national economic statistics, prisoners are never included, which makes it difficult to see the effects of incarceration rates on economic growth and other social issues, he said. Furthermore, Western pointed out how the employment rate for African Americans experienced a drastic decrease when prisoners were added to the total population. He then explained how prison affects the amount of money one earns, one’s wage growth, and the amount of time spent in a job. The labor market that ex-prisoners face, Western said, is one characterized by causal work, day labor, and few benefits.

When examining the statistics concerning the family life of those in prison, problems spread across multiple generations. While 1 percent of white children have a father in jail, 10 percent of African-American children have a father in jail, Western said. Western explained that this statistic exemplifies how imprisonment has become a normal event for young black men with little or no schooling.

After introducing these startling statistics, Western posed a few tactics that could possibly lower the incarceration rate in order to stop this inequity. Reducing the heavy reliance on incarceration for drug offenses, reducing the reliance on very long sentences, and reducing parole revocation rates are all methods that would lower these numbers, he said. In addition, Western suggested that the time has come to “think bigger” about these issues. For example, national re-entry policy, which would provide transitional employment paid for by removing technical parole violations, universal health care, and improved education could have a positive effect on lowering incarceration rates. Western said that these changes would be most effective because the “kinds of inequalities produced by mass incarceration are self-sustaining.” He believes that a radical change could most effectively improve the system.

Western ended his speech coming full circle by once again bringing up the Marshall quote that he read in the beginning of his lecture. The idea of citizenship has contracted from this problem of mass incarceration, he said. Western explained that the only way to reverse this problem is to restore and expand the basic human quality of citizenship.

Margaux Kay LaPointe, ’11, is a first-year student from Lebanon, Pa. She is an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Margaux plans on majoring in communication with a specialization in public relations.

Kate McAvey, ‘11, is a first-year student from Mahwah, N.J. She plans to major in Communication. Kate is working as an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Kate’s professional ambitions include broadcasting, public relations, and journalism.

Media Contact

Jennifer Schu

Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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