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Major Empirical Research Effort Finds Incarceration Suppresses Overall Voter Turnout

February 25, 2014, Press releases


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New ABF study finds high rates of neighborhood incarceration decrease the voting rates of community as a whole by up to 8 percentage points

CHICAGO, IL – February 26, 2014 – Political scientist and American Bar Foundation scholar Traci Burch’s new monograph, Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation (University of Chicago Press, 2013),  presents evidence that high rates of neighborhood incarceration diminish the “ability and desire” of all residents, even law-abiding family members and neighbors, to participate in politics. The result, Burch says, is that the residents of these communities are “kept on the margins of the polity” along with their convicted neighbors and family members.

Burch’s extensive dataset combines various sources from the 2008 presidential election in two states with high levels of incarceration, Georgia and North Carolina. Trading Democracy for Justice compiles election, neighborhood criminal justice, and population data along with survey data on social capital and painstakingly assembled records from local Departments of Corrections. Burch also conducted field work in political campaigns and non-partisan community organizations who worked to mobilize voters during the election.

Burch found that involvement with the criminal justice system features prominently in just a few neighborhoods where as many as one- third of the residents are under supervision at any time. Out of the 9,486 “block groups,” or neighborhoods, she examined, Burch found that imprisonment, parole, and probation were unevenly distributed: in North Carolina, the rates in these neighborhoods are almost ten times the national average. In Georgia, the rates are fourteen times the national average. Race worsened the inequality; the average prisoner density in neighborhoods with few blacks was less than two prisoners per square mile, while density was twenty times higher in black neighborhoods.

Unique in its use of advanced statistics, Trading Democracy for Justice demonstrates that incarceration dramatically decreases neighborhood voter turnout, up to an astounding 8 percentage points in neighborhoods with the highest numbers of incarcerated. The average voter turnout of a block group with no prisoners in North Carolina is about six percentage points higher than that of a block group with a spatial concentration of 250 prisoners per square mile. In Georgia, the figure is two percentage points higher in block groups with no prisoners. Burch also concludes that new prisoner admissions diminish voting: she found that, in Georgia up to three months before the 2008 election, voter turnout would have been 1.4% higher if new inmates were sent to prison after the election.

Burch offers that this spatially concentrated incarceration sends inmates’ families and friends into “emotional and financial chaos,” thereby making political participation difficult. The event of incarceration disrupts marriage and increases family responsibilities for those left behind. An arrest can also lead to a significant loss of income, as those incarcerated   are denied income that may have otherwise sustained their families and communities financially. High rates of incarceration can also leave fewer people available to volunteer for political causes. Burch found that residents of neighborhoods with a prisoner density of 110 prisoners per square mile participate in 43.4% fewer political activities.

Conversely, Burch inquired if political mobilization helps to increase voting in the neighborhoods studied. During field work conducted at thirty-two political campaigns and community organizations in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago, Burch and her research team found that nonpartisan groups are more effective in combating the significantly lower turnout rates in these neighborhoods. They observed that nonpartisan groups focused on new voter registration and community education, while political campaigns concentrated on already registered voters who were most likely to vote for their candidate. Nonpartisan groups were twice as likely to report hosting voter registration events in public places than political campaigns, which tended to take a less successful door-to-door canvassing approach.

Along with high rates of neighborhood incarceration, reduced voter turnout can further limit political representation by how residents are counted in the census. Prisoners are counted in the corrections facilities where they reside, rather than their home neighborhoods. As a result, more than two million incarcerated individuals from a relatively small number of communities are counted as residents of predominantly white, rural communities. The relocation of a large number of incarcerated persons can lead policy-makers to underestimate the needs of the neighborhoods they represent, and result in inadequate distribution of badly needed resources.

Trading Democracy for Justice shows that criminal convictions have a dramatic effect on the political activity of the larger community, alienating non-offender residents from political life. Burch sees promise in nonpartisan groups’ voter outreach efforts to fill the void that incarceration has created, but says that larger issues within the criminal justice system must be addressed to ensure the inclusiveness of American political system.

Burch’s  findings underscore the theme of a recent speech by U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder on criminal justice reform delivered  at the Georgetown  University Law Center  that touched on the disenfranchisement of the incarcerated and those in their communities. Said Holder:

“Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system.  So it’s time to renew our commitment – here and now – to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.”

Traci Burch is a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. Her research interests include criminal justice policy, race and ethnic politics, and political behavior. She is a coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order. (Princeton University Press, 2013)

The American Bar Foundation is the nation's leading research institute for the empirical study of law. An independent, nonprofit organization for more than 60 years, ABF seeks to advance the understanding and improvement of law through research projects of unmatched scale and quality on the most pressing issues facing the legal system in the United States and the world. The ABF’s primary funding is provided by the American Bar Endowment.


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