There are reasons to believe that changes in local labor market conditions in recent decades are associated with rates of imprisonment in the U.S. Technological advancements and declining manufacturing production in urban areas eliminated many high-paying job opportunities previously available to workers without college educations, leaving many financially worse-off than before. During the same time-period, social policies shifted fundamentally, reflecting a new orientation toward poor populations, as evidenced by major changes to welfare subsidies. At the same time, incarceration in prisons, another institutional practice affecting the poor, increased. The relationships between larger economic, labor market and political contexts and imprisonment rates are not yet understood fully. Research has yet to consider how specific labor market shifts (e.g., deindustrialization) affected the economic situations of less-skilled workers and how the same shifts may also influence imprisonment rates. Similarly, no research has investigated the effects of economic and labor market shifts as they coincided with political movements that redefined and shaped policies targeting populations most likely to face economic hardships. This research will investigate said issues using a combination of data sources, examining these relationships over time (1980 - 2000) and across more than 500 local areas.

This research is a necessary step in understanding how imprisonment patterns are shaped by local labor market conditions and economic inequality. Incarceration is a major state intervention that has consequences that extend beyond prison walls. For example, scholars note that rising imprisonment rates have had profound negative effects, including increases in inequality, and negative health outcomes. Thus, this research may inform criminal justice and economic policies. If the findings suggest that labor market inequalities experienced by poor and minority populations are positively associated with increases in imprisonment rates, this information may be used to inform public policy that better targets the issues faced by these groups.

Project Report

Intellectual Merit Between the 1970s and 2000, the United States imprisonment rate increased by 700%, and this increase occurred during a period of declining crime rates. By the year 2000, the United States now incarcerated more of its citizens than any other country. Simultaneously, the three decades prior to this experienced major labor market shifts. Specifically, scholars argue that technological advancements and the decline of manufacturing production in urban areas eliminated many of the higher-paying blue collar job opportunities that were previously available to workers without college educations. An important question is: what factors contributed to increases in imprisonment rates? This project argues that imprisonment rates have skyrocketed during a time of major restructuring in the U.S. labor market, and that there is reason to believe that increasingly insecure employment conditions in local labor markets may contribute to imprisonment rates as well. However, the relationships between labor markets and imprisonment rates are not yet understood fully. Much of the prior research in this vein focuses on unemployment rates, and examines this relationship at the national level or across states and these findings are inconsistent. The current project examines the effects of more nuanced labor market indicators on prison admission rates across local areas. In sum, this project finds that characteristics of local workers and indicators of local labor market opportunities (e.g., the percentage of male workers without college education and restricted blue collar job opportunities for unskilled workers) are positively associated with prison admission rates in the corresponding geographical areas and are thus better predictors of the punitive response of the criminal justice system than unemployment rates. Furthermore, scholars argue that beginning in the 1970s, policies targeting poor populations (including criminal justice policies) have taken a more punitive turn. Specifically, rising imprisonment rates co-occurred with the resurgence of Republican Party popularity, and scholars argue that this is due to an increased emphasis on tougher criminal justice policies that is often advocated by Republican political leaders. However, no research prior to the current project has investigated whether specific labor market labor market shifts may combine with partisan political movements that redefined and fundamentally shifted policies targeting the populations most likely to face economic hardships and criminal justice control. In sum, this project finds that there is a positive association between the local percentage voting for Republican candidates and prison admission rates in the corresponding areas. Thus, local partisanship is arguably an important consideration in examining the political context of prison admission rates. In addition, understanding the association between labor market conditions and imprisonment may be especially important for the criminal justice experiences of African Americans. Scholars have long argued that the loss of blue-collar job opportunities, such as manufacturing positions, has been particularly detrimental for the economic situations of historically disadvantaged racial minorities. Indeed, scholars note that by the year 2001, African Americans were more than five times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites at the national level. In sum, this project finds that there are, indeed, positive associations between the local percentage of African Americans without college education, deteriorating local labor market conditions for unskilled workers and rising prison admission rates by race in the corresponding geographical areas. Broader Impacts This research is a necessary step in understanding how imprisonment patterns are shaped by local labor market conditions and economic inequality, and particularly their impact on minorities and the poor. Imprisonment is a major state intervention into individual lives, and some argue that mass incarceration has profound consequences that go beyond prison walls, including family disruption, negative outcomes for children of incarcerated parents and labor market inequalities after release, as ex-convicts often face difficulty finding employment. Further, incarceration is associated with a number of negative health outcomes, including HIV infection. Results from this research may be used to inform policy in order to better target the issues facing groups experiencing economic hardship. Doing so may also help to reduce the unintended but widespread and profoundly negative consequences of incarceration for family, health and subsequent labor market and economic hardships.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Marjorie Zatz
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University of Iowa
Iowa City
United States
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