In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mass Incarceration and US Politics

  • Introduction
  • Reviews and Agenda-Setting Pieces

Political Science Mass Incarceration and US Politics
Kaneesha R. Johnson, Ariel R. White
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0221


Incarceration rates in the United States ballooned during the late 20th century, yielding historically and internationally unprecedented numbers of people behind bars. This mass incarceration has had well-documented effects on economic, educational, health, and social outcomes. But what does it have to do with political behavior? Political science as a whole has been slower than sociology or economics to address incarceration and criminal justice more broadly, but recent work has sought to describe both the political causes and consequences of mass incarceration. This bibliography begins with an overview of recent agenda-setting pieces that describe particular challenges or limitations of political science research on mass incarceration, or that propose new avenues of research. Then we turn to political causes, highlighting work on how public opinion, activism, and interest group activity have contributed to mass incarceration. Next, we discuss political outcomes, discussing research about how experiences with incarceration can shape public opinion and political participation. Finally, we give an overview of research on the political effects of felon disenfranchisement laws. A concluding section points to other resources: datasets and special journal issues that may be of particular interest to budding researchers.

Reviews and Agenda-Setting Pieces

Articles in this section describe broad themes in existing work and “set the agenda” for future research on mass incarceration and political behavior. Weaver, et al. 2013; Gottschalk 2008; and Isaac 2015 provide overviews of the literature, Soss and Weaver 2016, Turney 2013, and Gottschalk 2014 critique existing work and propose new ways of conducting research, while Soss 2013, Western 2013, Loury 2014 draw broader civic lessons from existing work.

  • Gottschalk, Marie. “Hiding in Plain Sight: American Politics and the Carceral State.” Annual Review of Political Science 11.1 (2008): 235–260.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060606.135218

    This article discusses the attention that political scientists have given to the rise of the carceral state over the past several decades and provides an overview of the broad causes of the phenomenon and the implications of mass incarceration for American politics and democracy.

  • Gottschalk, Marie. “Democracy and the Carceral State in America.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2014): 288–295.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213503787

    Critiques recent framings of incarceration as a fiscal or crime problem, arguing that it is mainly a political problem and should be analyzed as such.

  • Isaac, Jeffrey C. “The American Politics of Policing and Incarceration.” Perspectives on Politics 13.3 (2015): 609–616.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592715001206

    This introductory piece of a special issue of Perspectives on Politics outlines the trends of the study of mass incarceration in political science, including historical path dependencies, the impact that incarceration has on the wider community, class and race considerations, and the politics of policing.

  • Loury, Glenn C. “Detention, Democracy, and Inequality in a Divided Society.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2014): 178–182.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213502930

    In this ANNALS article, the author discusses the role of social policy in the United States and its implications for American democracy. Also discusses the role and social meaning of race and how this relates to public opinion on crime and punishment.

  • Soss, Joe. “Classes, Races, and Marginalized Places: Notes on the Study of Democracy’s Demise.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2013): 250–254.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213502932

    This commentary in a special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS) draws together several of the empirical articles to argue that mass incarceration constitutes a major threat to American democracy.

  • Soss, Joe, and Vesla Weaver. “Learning from Ferguson: Welfare, Criminal Justice, and the Political Science of Race and Class.” In The Double Bind: The Politics of Racial and Class Inequalities in the Americas, A Report of the Task Force on Racial and Social Class. Edited by Juliet Hooker and Alvin B. Tillery Jr., 77–100. Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 2016.

    A recent review piece that discusses the distinct approaches that political science has taken to the study of race and of class, and proposes a different way forward. It then brings this critique to the relatively understudied area of carceral practices and proposes new areas of research, noting that interactions with criminal justice systems must been seen as political experiences, and that they are highly intertwined with welfare system experiences.

  • Turney, Kristin. “Incarceration and Social Inequality: Challenges and Directions for Future Research.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2013): 97–101.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213501273

    This commentary in a special issue of AAPSS uses the empirical articles from the issue as the basis for a broader discussion of the methodological challenges facing this sort of research. After discussing the contributions and limitations of each article, it turns to a set of broader recommendations for future empirical work on mass incarceration, including collecting better data, grappling with selection issues, and investigating null findings.

  • Weaver, Vesla M., Jacob S. Hacker, and Christopher Wildeman. “Detaining Democracy? Criminal Justice and American Civic Life.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2013): 6–21.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213504729

    This introduction to a special issue of AAPSS gives an overview of major questions about the criminal justice system’s place in, and effects on, democratic life. It focuses on several broad themes, including citizenship and spillover effects within families and communities.

  • Western, Bruce. “Incarceration, Inequality, and Imagining Alternatives.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651.1 (2013): 302–306.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716213503107

    This commentary in a special issue of AAPSS discusses several of the empirical articles in the issue and related work, arguing that mass incarceration has changed the very nature of American citizenship. It describes a “vicious circle” in which incarceration generates deep inequalities and social exclusions that lead to widening divisions between affected and unaffected communities.

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