I spent this Thanksgiving with my family in Charlotte, North Carolina. My sister recently bought her first home in one of those quaint communities where the houses coordinate colors, and the neighbors all wave hello. When she first moved there, she was warned several times to be careful and always lock her doors when driving on the nearby South Boulevard. But to any seasoned Hyde Park resident, perceiving danger on a well-lit road with a prominent Pier 1 Imports is practically preposterous.
Putting South Boulevard aside, however, Charlotte's neighborhoods vary significantly in safety levels, police presence and incarceration rates. For Traci Burch, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, Charlotte presented the perfect grounds for research. Burch presented her findings in her paper, The Neighborhood Effects of Incarceration on Individual Perceptions of Discrimination and Political Efficacy, at the Public Law & Legal Theory Workshop on November 23, 2010.
The Effects of Incarceration in Neighborhoods
What is the political effect of imprisoning one percent of the national adult population? According to Burch, the effect is more significant than the national statistics indicate. The incarceration rate is not spread out geographically or uniformly. Instead, incidents of adult imprisonment are concentrated in specific neighborhoods, often among racial groups. As past research has shown, interactions with the government, or the criminal justice system, influence an individual's political attitudes; and incarceration usually instills a negative attitude. However, Burch posits a new question: what is the effect on political attitudes in the neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, even among people who were not themselves incarcerated?
Burch focuses on perceptions of discrimination and political efficacy in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg metro area. Burch compared survey data from neighborhoods with imprisonment rates of 1% and 2%. The model controlled for age, ideology, education, poverty, crime, vacancy, and unemployment rates. Her findings demonstrate that neighborhood residents with higher imprisonment rates perceive more discrimination and feel less politically efficacious than people in neighborhoods with lower rates.
Further, Burch theorizes why government action reshapes attitudes in this way, building feelings of discrimination and deters voter turnout. In high incarceration neighborhoods, Burch explains, residents acquire political attitudes through cultural transmission and/or direct observation.
Cultural transmission is described as an individual's ability to share experiences, opinions and attitudes within a community. Essentially, these neighborhoods assimilate the attitudes of those that have been arrested. In addition, a resident is more likely to directly observe another's negative experience with the government if the rate of police incidents is higher. Accordingly, the rate of incarceration in a neighborhood is highly correlated with negative attitudes toward the criminal justice system, and by extension the government.
The government's antagonistic presence in these neighborhoods negatively affects the residents' perceived political efficacy. Political efficacy can be separated into two categories: (1) internal - an individual's perceived ability to affect political outcomes, and (2) external - the perceived responsiveness of political institutions.
Burch theorizes that attitudes of internal inefficacy sprout from the proximity to convicts and ex-convicts harboring feelings of discrimination, stigma and political weakness. Similarly, the negative external political attitudes are explained by unresponsiveness in interactions with welfare agencies or other government institutions. These interactions are pervasive in higher-incarceration neighborhoods, and the feelings spread through cultural transmission or direct observation.
Lastly, Burch describes how attitudes and perceived political efficacy affect voter turnout. As might be expected, voter turnout is lower in neighborhoods with feelings of low political efficacy. However, studies show that perceptions of discrimination increase group consciousness. This mixture raises the likelihood that high incarceration neighborhoods will resort to unconventional political avenues, such as protest or separatist movements. Linking political attitudes with heightened punishment in these neighborhoods improves our understanding of political behavior.
During the workshop, alternative explanations were discussed. There may be other material reasons why political participation is low in these neighborhoods: Voting is much more costly for low-income people who do not have transportation or cannot easily take time off from work. However, Burch pointed out that her analysis controls for the economic condition of the individual respondent and their neighborhood, so these issues should not bias the results of the study.
Another point was made that high incarceration rates are not necessarily representative of a high police presence. Burch assured that the police incident reports used in the data were a good indicator of police presence, because they account for all police incidents, not just incarceration.
In the 2008 election, voter turnout was greater in three high incarceration neighborhoods with historically low voter turnout. Burch pointed out the likely explanation was the Obama campaign's ability to incite feelings of change, hope and political efficacy.