University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Crime, punishment, and American inequality

When it comes to crime, there is a large gap between what the science of criminology shows to be true and public perception and policy. A generation of research demonstrates that over time, nearly all those who have broken the law eventually desist from crime. Public policy, however, continues to be based on the perception that there are two kinds of people in the world: bad actors and good citizens. There is a persistent belief that if we can just lock up the bad actors and throw away the key, then the rest of us will be safe. This gulf between research findings and public perception has recently widened as the label of “criminal” can now remain with an individual for much longer than in the past. If individuals are indeed being punished long after the point they would have left a criminal path, then there is a need to identify where there might be excess punishment, and find less coercive solutions to keeping order. In this article, I contrast the fluidity of an individual’s participation in criminal activities with the stickiness of labels placed on those who have ever had any contact with the criminal justice system. The spillover effects of incarceration reach a variety of other areas; I focus on two of them: disenfranchisement for current and former felons, and welfare bans for those convicted of drug-related crimes. I describe some reintegrative approaches to justice in the United States, which offer an alternative to stigmatizing approaches. Finally, I describe an analysis of the outcomes of a traditional community-based justice system in Rwanda, dating back to before colonization, that was adapted to address crimes of genocide. Rwanda provides an example of a large-scale attempt to successfully reintegrate former prisoners into their communities. The number of Rwandan perpetrators, combined with the very limited prison infrastructure, made such reintegration imperative. While the situation in the United States is clearly very different, we are approaching a point where it will be infeasible to simply exclude from society every person convicted of a felony. While reintegration efforts have been tried in the United States on a small scale, there is great potential to expand this approach.


Court System, Incarceration, Justice System, Juvenile Justice, Prisoner Reentry