October 22, 2018

Professor Leads Team to Improve Understanding of U.S. Mass Incarceration

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With over 2 million adults behind bars, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, according to the BBC. To understand this phenomenon better, Prof. Christopher Wildeman, policy analysis and management, set out with a team of Cornell and external researchers to find data about mass incarceration that is currently lacking in academia.

Wildeman and his team, including Profs. Maria Fitzpatrick, policy analysis and management, and Peter Enns, government, designed and conducted an in-depth survey to gauge just how pervasive mass incarceration is in the U.S. Their research will generate five approximations that illustrate the portion of the U.S. population that has a relationship to incarceration.

Four estimates have been collected from states — Arizona, Mississippi, New York, and Oklahoma — and a national sample has been collected with assistance from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

“The core goal of the survey,” Wildeman said, “is to provide the first ever national estimates of the proportion of the American population that has ever had an immediate or extended family member incarcerated.”

The complex survey also accounts for distinctions in the duration of jail or prison stays, as well as variations in race, ethnicity, income, gender and additional categorizations.

The survey questions asked whether respondents have ever had a family member, immediate or extended, incarcerated. They also asked which relatives were incarcerated and accommodated specifications about political participation, personal experiences with incarceration and health.

The team spent six months creating and fine-tuning the survey and six weeks executing it in the field. After submitting a journal article on their research, they are now collaborating with the funder, FWD.us, a bipartisan lobbying group, to publish a report late next month.

“We can’t say anything about the estimates before their report drops,” Wildeman said. “But we can say this: the numbers will absolutely astound you.”

Collecting and working with such unprecedented data, according to Wildeman, is no easy feat. “Designing a survey from scratch that simultaneously does what we need it to and that satisfies nearly 10 researchers and a funder is an incredibly difficult task.”

Wildeman said that a driving force behind the research was an understanding that essential information is not yet available in the study of mass incarceration.

“All of us working in this field have spent our careers trying to force data that weren’t designed to help us learn about mass incarceration to do precisely that,” he explained. “And so we all wanted to have the opportunity to design a survey that was, first and foremost, intended to help us learn about mass incarceration.”

He believes that the study is necessary not only because it illuminates “how much stronger research on this topic can be when it is designed explicitly to tell us something about it,” but also because it proves just how omnipresent mass incarceration is in the U.S.

Wildeman hopes that this research will provide Americans with a more accurate understanding of incarceration.

“I hope that it will show folks that incarceration is pervasive in all American families and that it has the potential to do great harm both for racial [and] ethnic minorities, who experience this event so much more consistently, and for more advantaged families.” He said that “even for wealthy white families, who we tend to think about as being buffered from the criminal justice system,” experiences with incarceration are extremely prevalent.

Wildeman hopes that “this report helps show that criminal justice contact is so common in the United States that all social policy conversations simply cannot ignore it any more.”