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Poor communities — often facing high rates of crime, residential segregation, and chronic unemployment — absorb much of the attention of criminal justice agencies. Admission and release from incarceration and high rates of probation and parole supervision have changed the institutional landscape of race and poverty in America. Research on the Social Context and Consequences of Incarceration examines the role of criminal justice agencies in the daily life of poor and minority communities, and aims to promote a positive role for justice institutions in expanding opportunity and creating a robust and sustainable public safety.
After a sustained increase in the incarceration rate, the prison and jail population of the Untied States is now more than seven times higher than in the early 1970s. The growth in incarceration rates was produced by a transformation of sentencing policy and a new emphasis on incapacitation and deterrence as the main purposes of punishment. In the last few years, a new conversation has started about alternatives to incarceration and reducing prison and jail populations. Research at PCJ examines the consequences of high incarceration and studies how incarceration rates might be reduced to promote public safety and justice.
Prepared by committee chair, Jeremy Travis, vice-chair Bruce Western, and a committee including Harvard faculty Devah Pager and Rob Sampson, the National Research Council (NRC) report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, provides the first comprehensive assessment of research on how we got to such a high incarceration rate and its impact on the population.
The report recommends that incarceration rates be significantly reduced, that prison conditions be closely monitored to ensure the rights and dignity of those incarcerated, and that social policy be buttressed to adjust to community needs in a climate of reduced prison populations.
The Committee on Law and Justice hosted a public briefing and webcast on April 30, 2014 to provide an overview of findings and recommendations from its new report. Bruce Western (HKS and PCJ), vice chair of the committee, was one of the presenters at this briefing.
The National Research Council (NRC)/National Academies published a video on March 17, 2015 about the findings of the committe's report. The nation's reliance on imprisonment has not clearly improved public safety and may have had large unwanted consequences for society. A change in course is needed. The report urges policymakers to reconsider sentencing policies and to seek crime-control strategies that are more effective, with better public safety benefits and fewer unwanted consequences.
Incarceration is highly concentrated in poor communities. Research at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) examines the challenges of community return for the formerly incarcerated and studies how daily life in poor neighborhoods is affected by high incarceration rates.
A collaborative project led by Bruce Western, Anthony Braga, and Rhiana Kohl (Research Unit, Massachusetts Department of Correction), the Boston Reentry Study(BRS) is a longitudinal survey of Massachusetts state prisoners newly-released to the Boston area.
With support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Harvard University, the BRS collects data on 122 men and women, first interviewing them a week before prison release, and then repeatedly over the following year. The BRS yields exceedingly rich data on a key life transition for a sample of men and women from poor, urban communities... more about the study
Additional articles and publications can be found from links at left (red box)