Incarceration—Social Context and Consequences

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 at Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management 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 United 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.

National Research Council Report on Incarceration

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...MORE

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Social Context and Consequences

Incarceration is highly concentrated in poor communities. Research at 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.

Boston Reentry Study

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. The BRS collects data on 122 men and women, first interviewing them a week before prison release, and then repeatedly over the following year and yields exceedingly rich data on a key life transition for a sample of men and women from poor, urban communities... MORE

New York Reentry Study

The New York Reentry Study (NYRS) is a longitudinal panel survey of 25 men and their families in the first year after release from incarceration to New York City. Interviews focus on the topics of housing, employment, health, and social integration for those returning from prison or jail. The unique study design incorporates interviews with a network of approximately four family members, including children over nine years old, to examine the impact of incarceration and reentry on families alongside those returning from prison or jail... MORE

Young Adult Justice

Recent attention to mass incarceration in the United states, along with research into the psychological and neurological development of young adults (approximately ages 18-25), reveals that young adults are served poorly by adult-focused US criminal justice practices. Young adults are more developmentally similar to adolescents yet receive none of the mitigation, individualization, special programming, and protections from collateral consequences that are afforded, if imperfectly, to juveniles in delinquency, or family, court. The results are rates of system involvement, incarceration, and rearrest that are unacceptably high. Most people who ever have a felony record obtain... MORE

Reforming Justice for Young Adults:  Time to Rethink How We Serve this Critical Population

This event was held on October 14, 2015 with an expert panel of criminal justice experts and practitioners who gathered before a live audience in the Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts and others following along online to discuss reforming justice for young adults, along with new research from MassINC and the Executive Session on Community Corrections 2013-2016 (ESCC).

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