Homelessness, unemployment, higher debt rates, poor health for both the formerly incarcerated and their families, disengagement from community life and isolation… There is plenty of evidence that jail time causes social damage in the United States, which accentuates inequalities because it affects poor people of color disproportionately. The US has the highest imprisonment rate of the developed world and a complex criminal justice system, yet data on the mechanisms by which mass incarceration generates harm on this scale are surprisingly hard to come by.
In their article “Collateral Consequences of Punishment: A Critical Review and Path Forward,” in the first volume of the Annual Review of Criminology, David S. Kirk, of the University of Oxford, and Sara Wakefield, of Rutgers University, argue that imprisonment rates and confinement conditions vary significantly across states. “These differences are not well understood or systematically documented but likely influence the scope, magnitude, and character of collateral consequences,” they write.
The federal system, for example, houses only 13 percent of all prisoners, half of whom are sentenced on drug-related charges. “Crimmigration”, the portmanteau for immigration and criminal law, is also on the rise in the federal system, although this hike “reflects an increasing punitiveness toward immigrants rather than a growth in the crime rate among immigrants.” In contrast, the jail system houses the higher number of prisoners, and the state system has 53% of its inmates locked in for violent crimes. Given the differences between the two systems on post-incarceration consequences, the authors believe contrasting the data could lead to a better grasp on the stakes of imprisonment: “Unfortunately, comparisons across different types of confinement are nearly impossible to accomplish with available data.”
“Crimmigration” policies have become stricter under the Trump administration, as the threshold for deportation has dropped considerably, and any alleged criminal offender is set for deportation upon arrest, regardless of conviction. Detained migrant children are also an urgent topic of research, as the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by US Border Patrol has been growing steadily. Evidence shows their detainment has similar characteristics to typical imprisonment, and they endure the same suspected cases of verbal, physical, sexual abuse and human rights violations. There are no systematic investigations of the consequences of these conditions on detained children and their families, one of the reasons the authors recommend that immigration be made a more central focus of the collateral consequence research agenda.
The authors argue the consequences of the crime, such as imprisonment, should be studied separately from consequences of the punishment itself, like difficulties finding employment. They also think the impact of specific types of prison and the conditions of confinement need to be examined. They advocate for the creation of more robust databases compiling all the information on the inmates, during and after their time in jail.
They recommend looking to Europe, specifically Nordic countries, for a model of continuing information collection that tracks inmates and their families. These nations use a national registration system that allows for cross-referencing data on an individual’s crime and punishment with, e.g., their education and family status.
Read more in the first volume of the Annual Review of Criminology.