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Political Consequences of the Carceral State

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2010

University of Virginia
Princeton University
Vesla M. Weaver is Assistant Professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400787, Charlottesville, VA 22904 (
Amy E. Lerman is Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs, Princeton University, 311 Robertson Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544 (


Contact with the criminal justice system is greater today than at any time in our history. In this article, we argue that interactions with criminal justice are an important source of political socialization, in which the lessons that are imprinted are antagonistic to democratic participation and inspire negative orientations toward government. To test this argument, we conduct the first systematic empirical exploration of how criminal justice involvement shapes the citizenship and political voice of a growing swath of Americans. We find that custodial involvement carries with it a substantial civic penalty that is not explained by criminal propensity or socioeconomic differences alone. Given that the carceral state has become a routine site of interaction between government and citizens, institutions of criminal justice have emerged as an important force in defining citizen participation and understandings, with potentially dire consequences for democratic ideals.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2010

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