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Punishment and Inequality in America [Paperback]

by Bruce Western
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 13, 2007 087154895X 978-0871548955
Over the last thirty years, the prison population in the United States has increased more than sevenfold to over two million people, including vastly disproportionate numbers of minorities and people with little education. For some racial and educational groups, incarceration has become a depressingly regular experience, and prison culture and influence pervade their communities. Almost 60 percent of black male high school drop-outs in their early thirties have spent time in prison. In Punishment and Inequality in America, sociologist Bruce Western explores the recent era of mass incarceration and the serious social and economic consequences it has wrought.

Punishment and Inequality in America dispels many of the myths about the relationships among crime, imprisonment, and inequality. While many people support the increase in incarceration because of recent reductions in crime, Western shows that the decrease in crime rates in the 1990s was mostly fueled by growth in city police forces and the pacification of the drug trade. Getting "tough on crime" with longer sentences only explains about 10 percent of the fall in crime, but has come at a significant cost. Punishment and Inequality in America reveals a strong relationship between incarceration and severely dampened economic prospects for former inmates. Western finds that because of their involvement in the penal system, young black men hardly benefited from the economic boom of the 1990s. Those who spent time in prison had much lower wages and employment rates than did similar men without criminal records. The losses from mass incarceration spread to the social sphere as well, leaving one out of ten young black children with a father behind bars by the end of the 1990s, thereby helping perpetuate the damaging cycle of broken families, poverty, and crime.

The recent explosion of imprisonment is exacting heavy costs on American society and exacerbating inequality. Whereas college or the military were once the formative institutions in young men’s lives, prison has increasingly usurped that role in many communities. Punishment and Inequality in America profiles how the growth in incarceration came about and the toll it is taking on the social and economic fabric of many American communities.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

BRUCE WESTERN is professor of sociology at Princeton University. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 247 pages
  • Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation Publications (December 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 087154895X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871548955
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #312,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Bruce Western has stepped into the realm of public sociology, I feel, with this excellent book. This is a well-written, thoroughly researched, book that is accessible to scholars and others alike. Even though the book teems with tables, figures, and analysis, Western presents them without relying on the reader to interpret regression coefficients for meaningfulness, yet also appends many of the chapters with methodological clarifications just for those kinds of people.

Western presents what is essentially a political book without a political tone. The data speak for themselves, and it is very difficult to think that, after all the work put into this, that he incorrectly attributes so little of the decrease in crime trends to the prison boom (and the absurdity of the cost/benefit for its effect on the decrease). It does seem, however, that he echoes the racial claims of Loic Wacquant in the final chapter, but that's only for a brief moment.

Western also excellently argues and shows off the immense disconnect between crime rates and corrections policy; although only a portion of one chapter, this is a significant point to make. If our policies do not reflect what criminals are actually doing, well, why are we doing it?

My only concern with this book involves Western's "all or nothing" approach to showing the economic/social cost of the prison boom. His analyses show the wage gap, parental gap, and other penalties suffered during and after release by prisoners. He astutely points out the selection bias in unemployment and wage estimates in minority populations due to leaving out the far-more-likely-to-be-incarcerated blacks.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Prison Employee December 8, 2007
This is a book the policy makers and students and everyone in-between would be well served by reading. It can be a little repetitive at times, but the author makes his points well. One of the strengths of this book is that through painstaking but necessary detail in the analysis, the author shows how incarceration damages the lives of those already affected by inequality. Most authors draw correlations, but Western has been able to detail how it is not just the characteristics of those who go to prison that are responsible for recidivism, but that the process of being in prison actually exacerbates the already existing problems in social and human capital that offenders have. I would have liked the author say more about being discerning with crime policy and who should go to prison. There are some people who belong in prison, but this fact seems to be lost in the amount of evidence that is detailed in this book. This however, does not take away from the quality of the book.

The author also does a very nice job in explaining the relationship between the crime drop in the 1990s and the increase in incarceration - increased incarceration is not related to a decrease in crime. The author explains how a 66% increase in incarceration was associated with only a 2- to 5% decrease in crime, at a cost of over $50 billion clearly making the point that incarceration is not an effective means of reducing crime.

My only complaint is that the author does attack Republicans a bit much early on in his book which I believe to be counterproductive. If the author would like Republicans (those who he claims make the worst crime polices) to implement better crime policy, than he should not scare them off but rather, make them think the ideas he is espousing are their own. Just an idea.

Good book, read it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bruce Western December 16, 2008
Millions of individuals are being incarcerated at higher rates than ever before. When compared to other developed democracies, the United States is the leader in sending it's populace to jail. In Bruce Western's Punishment and Inequality in America, he manages to shed light on just how serious the effects of mass incarceration are on our society. Throughout his book Western provides quantitative data to support his notion that mass incarceration exacerbates inequality within the United States.

He goes on to establish that incarceration can be perceived as an institutional membership for many African American males, successfully pushing the poor black minority further into a desperate standard of living which is ripe for recidivism and shattered family structures. As he states, "Black men under age forty have an incarceration rate of 11.5 percent, and are just as likely to be in prison or jail as in a labor union, and about twice as likely to be incarcerated, as to receive government benefits"(p. 19). For many black men in this country, it is common to know someone that has been incarcerated or have actually been incarcerated personally.

Western partially blames the "law and order themes" of the Republican Party for the increased punitive stance. According to Western, after the civil rights movement, there were "realigned race relations," coupled with "elevated crime rates," that led many in the Republican Party to push their get tough agendas. He points out presidents such as Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Senior all enacted more punitive crime measures. Western, however, lacks a more direct example of the actual effects of each presidential administration.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but dull
Informative, but it has almost nothing but statistics, so it makes it a very dull read. I'm taking a criminology class this semester and this is one of the required texts.
Published 5 months ago by Stuart Evans
2.0 out of 5 stars Another bland book by an Australian who's never left his office
This is a rather bland book. My main complaint at this moment is not the rabid secularism, but rather the mere fact that Bruce Western refuses to state that he is Australian in... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Katherine Bartley
2.0 out of 5 stars Weak and Politically Biased
It's all Republicans and white people's fault. All these black males in jail, not being coddled and taught how to be good people. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Trakehner
3.0 out of 5 stars Racism and our Legal System
Punishment and Inequality is the culmination of an eight-year project by author Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard, who sought to examine how America's penal system... Read more
Published 15 months ago by BrooklynSociologist
3.0 out of 5 stars Levitt 2004: Roe v. Wade lowers crime 20 years later HighIncarceration...
See also Levitt's 2004 JEP article Journal of Economic Perspectives--Volume 18, Number 1--Winter 2004--Pages 163-190
My extracts from the Levitt article:... Read more
Published on October 1, 2011 by William H. Colbert
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting analysis
Bought for a public policy class. Read most of it, though a lot of it is redundant to me. Well conceived graphs and tables. Written for professional or layperson. Read more
Published on May 10, 2010 by V. Woolums
5.0 out of 5 stars A critically important book
This books documents the stratification of American society; with irrefutable documentation it proves that India is far from being the only country with a caste system. Read more
Published on July 1, 2009 by Ari Kohn
4.0 out of 5 stars Bruce Western
Since the 1970's, the American penal process has changed drastically from a rehabilitative focus to one of incapacitation, deterrence and punishment. Read more
Published on December 19, 2008 by K. Gove
5.0 out of 5 stars The social impact of mass incarceration
This books brings into light fundamental findings about mass incarceration. Studying the causes and the consequences of the imprisonment boom in the US. Read more
Published on May 27, 2008 by Belquis
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