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Book Chapter

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Random Family (LeBlanc 2003) tells the story of a tangled family and social network of young people in New York City in which prison threads through their lives since childhood. Early on, we meet a young man named Cesar, who sold small amounts of crack and heroin in the streets near his home in the Bronx. During one of his many spells in jail, Cesar sees his father pushing a cafeteria cart in the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, New York City’s jail. Cesar had not seen his father in many years, but he was not very surprised to see him there. This was neither Cesar’s first time at Rikers, nor his first time in jail, and the same was true of his father. Cesar was at Rikers awaiting transfer to a prison in upstate New York, one of several prison spells he would face within his first three decades of life. In addition to seeing his father in jail, Cesar often encountered childhood friends from his Bronx neighborhood as he moved through the state’s prisons.

Recent evidence suggests that the growing social concentration of incarceration is reciprocally tied to the spatial concentration of incarceration in poor urban neighborhoods. Cesar’s story suggests that incarceration has become part of the social and psychological fabric of neighborhood life in poor neighborhoods of New York and many other cities. It is in the background of childhood socialization and an everyday contingency for young men as they navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Recent studies show that the risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in poor neighborhoods, contributing to the accumulation of social and economic adversity for people living in these areas as well as for the overall well-being of the neighborhood itself (Clear, Rose, and Ryder 2001; Lynch and Sabol 2002). As the risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in these areas, their prospects for marriage or earning a family-sustaining wage diminish as the incarceration rates around them rise, closing off social exits into productive social roles. Over time, incarceration creates more incarceration in a spiraling dynamic.

This chapter illustrates this process using data from New York City on neighborhood rates of incarceration in jail or prison in five waves over a 12-year period beginning in 1986. Rates of incarceration grew slowly in the early 1980s and spiked sharply after 1985 as crime rates rose. Incarceration rates persisted at a high level through the 1990s, declining far more slowly than did the sharply falling crime rates. These analyses show that the use of incarceration, especially prison, seems to have differential effects across the city’s neighborhoods and police precincts, but that the overall excess of incarceration rates over crime rates seems to be concentrated among nonwhite males living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.


Criminal Law | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Law