Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration

Abstract

Objectives

Research on race and urban poverty views incarceration as a new and important aspect of social disadvantage in inner-city neighborhoods. However, in quantitative studies of the spatial distribution of imprisonment across neighborhoods, the pattern outside urban areas has not been examined. This paper offers a unique analysis of disaggregated prison admissions and investigates the spatial concentrations and levels of admissions for the entire state of Massachusetts.

Methods

Spatial regressions estimate census tract-level prison admission rates in relation to racial demographics, social and economic disadvantage, arrest rates, and violent crime; an analysis of outlier neighborhoods examines the surprisingly high admission rates in small cities.

Findings

Regression analysis yields three findings. First, incarceration is highly spatially concentrated: census tracts covering 15% of the state’s population account for half of all prison admissions. Second, across urban and non-urban areas, incarceration is strongly related to concentrated disadvantage and the share of the black population, even after controlling for arrest and crime rates. Third, the analysis shows admission rates in small urban satellite cities and suburbs comprise the highest rates in the sample and far exceed model predictions.

Conclusion

Mass incarceration emerged not just to manage distinctively urban social problems but was characteristic of a broader mode of governance evident in communities often far-removed from deep inner-city poverty. These notably high levels and concentrations in small cities should be accounted for when developing theories of concentrated disadvantage or policies designed to ameliorate the impacts of mass incarceration on communities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The data has current institutional review board (IRB) approval from the Massachusetts Department of Correction and the author’s institution.

  2. 2.

    For this analysis, indicators of crime rates are limited to Part I crimes due to the availability of statewide data and desired consistency across datasets. The Massachusetts State Crime Reporting Unit and Boston Police Department only provided tract-level data on Part I violent crimes. Part I crimes are serious offenses likely to be reported to police agencies. As such, they tend to be higher quality than other types of official crime records.

  3. 3.

    This type of spatial joining is possible because all census tracts in Massachusetts fall within a municipality. This data is used to include a model containing tracts from Lawrence, Massachusetts, which does not participate in NIBRS.

  4. 4.

    The same outliers exist in all three models.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Bruce Western, Devah Pager, Robert J. Sampson, Matthew Desmond, and Christopher Winship for support for this project, as well as Justice and Inequality seminar participants at Harvard University for helpful comments. I am grateful to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the State Crime Reporting Unit and the Boston Police Department for providing data indispensable to this study. This research has been supported by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the NSF-IGERT program, “Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy” at Harvard University (Grant No. 0333403).

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Correspondence to Jessica T. Simes.

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Simes, J.T. Place and Punishment: The Spatial Context of Mass Incarceration. J Quant Criminol 34, 513–533 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-017-9344-y

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Keywords

  • Incarceration
  • Neighborhoods
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Poverty
  • Spatial regression