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Poverty, criminal justice, and social justice

This article summarizes the April 2019 Robert J. Lampman Memorial Lecture given by Bruce Western. Western describes three methodologies he has used to explore and understand mass incarceration in the United States: demographic analysis of U.S. incarceration as a whole; an in-depth study of people in the year after their release from prison in one American city; and personal narratives from those former prisoners. He argues that mass incarceration is intimately connected to the very harsh conditions of poverty in the United States, and that meaningful criminal justice reform will need to account for this reality, both in its policy specifics and in its underlying values.


  • The rate of incarceration in the United States has grown dramatically since the early 1970s, greatly outpacing that of Western European and other OECD countries; approximately 6.6 million people are currently under some type of correctional supervision in the United States.
  • Mass incarceration criminalized social problems related to racial inequality and poverty on a historically unprecedented scale, contributing to the reproduction of poverty and racial inequality.
  • Long histories of exposure to violence and other trauma in childhood are common among those who have been incarcerated.
  • People tend to leave prison in very poor physical and mental health; those exposed to the most trauma in childhood had the worst health in adulthood.
  • There is a deep level of material hardship in the first year after leaving prison, especially among those with the most physical and mental health traumas.


Child Development & Well-Being, Children, Incarceration, Inequality & Mobility, Justice System, Prisoner Reentry, Racial/Ethnic Inequality