How The Criminal Justice System Is Racializing Our Democracy


The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its black population than apartheid South Africa did. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated at one point in their lives, and receive sentences 20 percent longer than whites on-average when they are.

That this state of affairs is manifestly unfair should be obvious. But the unfairnesses may be deeper and more devastating than you think: the criminal justice system may well be undermining black Americans’ access to political power and life altogether.

At least, that’s what Vesla Weaver believes. A professor of political science at Yale, Weaver and her colleague, philosopher Jason Stanley, argued that the disproportionate targeting of black Americans by police is undermining their faith in the democratic system, turning our nation into a “racial democracy” where only some groups of people feel free to engage in political life. For instance, Weaver’s research finds that Americans who were incarcerated even for a short spell are a whopping 22 percent less likely to vote, even after accounting for the millions of people barred from voting after a felony conviction. The high rate of black incarceration, then, directly undermines the ability of black communities to elect leaders willing to fight for racial equality.

I got in touch with Weaver to talk about this troubling argument and to get a preview of her forthcoming book, coauthored with Princeton’s Amy E. Lerman, laying out the evidence for it at length. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.


When we’re talking about democracy and the criminal justice system, everyone who’s fairly familiar with the issue knows about the effect of felon disenfranchisement on democracy. What’s less well known — what your piece highlighted — is that broader contact with the criminal justice system can also make people significantly less likely to participate in the political system. Can you talk a little bit about how you showed that?

It has long struck me that the focus on felon disenfranchisement was missing something — that formal exclusion was important, but it may not explain the entirety of why people choose to withdraw and choose to disengage. We know that some government programs empower people. They tell them that they have a voice in the operations of government; they tell them that they are valued political equals. One could think of Social Security recipients, who are some of the most actively engaged participants in the American political process. Suzanne Mettler has talked about G.I. Bill recipients becoming very active in the political process. So we wanted to compare this to the kind of contact most low-income minority citizens were having with government.

Our starting point really was just a simple observation: if you look at communities that are low-income and communities that are disadvantaged, their primary face of government — the government they see — it’s not necessarily City Hall, it’s not necessarily the DMV, it’s not necessarily filing their taxes; it’s the criminal justice system. We realized very quickly that no other political science surveys out there were asking about criminal justice contacts. They would ask, “have you ever received welfare, have you ever voted” — things like that — but they weren’t considering criminal justice a primary way that citizens interact with their state.

What we did is we used several other surveys within sociology — large, nationally representative (in some cases) surveys. We asked questions like, “have you ever been arrested, have you ever been stopped by police, have you ever been convicted of a crime, have you ever served hard time?” and looked at whether having a contact of that type affected a range of political behaviors and a range of attitudes about government. So trusting government, whether they feel that they can influence the political system. We looked at whether people felt like full and equal citizens; we looked at whether people felt that everyone in the U.S. had equal chances to succeed and several other questions.

What we found was that, lo and behold, it turns out that criminal justice is one of the biggest predictors of those kinds of politically salient attitudes. So even when you’re comparing someone who’s low-income, disadvantaged, maybe minority, who doesn’t have contact with criminal justice to someone who does, there’s a huge effect of having contact with criminal justice. We can also look over time at changes in perceptions, so one of our surveys allows us to see that once a person has had a contact of this sort with government, it drives down their feelings of trust in the government, it drives down their participation in democratic elections, it drives down how equal they feel.


How big is this effect? That is to say, can you roughly estimate how many people, and what kinds of people — I think that’s very important in this context — are being pushed away from the political system by contact with the criminal justice system?

The effect is very large, and it rises with each level of contact. So [for] somebody that has served a year or more in prison, the effects range from something like 22 to 26 percent decrease in voter turnout. That is equivalent to being a parent who doesn’t have a college degree. That is equivalent to all of the sudden being under the federal poverty line. It’s an enormous effect.

Normally, political scientists have focused on the key predictors of participation [being] things like, “do you have time, do you have money, do you have education?” We’ve found that these effects are just as large, if not larger, than those traditional predictors of participation, which has huge implications because folks are very interested in getting turnout to increase. They do these get-out-the-vote drives. Well this suggests that it’s not just about lessening income gaps, it’s not simply about giving people the information they need to vote, it’s not simply about canvassing their neighborhoods. It’s also about the types of messages government is sending them about their worth in the polity. You asked about, “does it affect certain types of people more than others?” Anybody that has contact with criminal justice has this effect. So even when you separate out blacks in the sample, it’s not like the effects are larger.

But black and Latino populations have much higher rates of contact with the criminal justice system than whites. I see what you mean. The effect is definitely larger in that sense. If you look at race of contact across different populations, blacks are just orders of magnitude above whites. This is a very rare type of contact with government for whites. But if you look at blacks — particularly blacks without a high school education, particularly blacks who are of low income — we found that in one of the surveys, blacks had more contact with the criminal justice system than with what we would call the social provisions side of the state. More blacks were getting contact by criminal justice than, say, were getting the Earned Income Tax Credit or receiving welfare.

We used to get a lot of questions about “why are you considering [criminal justice] government?” But really, this is government for some communities. There are much larger proportions of blacks having this type of contact than, say, going to college, entering the military, [or experiencing] other types of more pro-social contact with government.

So could this be creating a kind of political feedback loop, wherein there’s already a system that is, in effect, structurally racist, and the structurally racist criminal justice system drives down African American political participation, which in turn prevents the sort of people who would want to take action in response to the demands of their constituents from taking office, allowing the whole system to continue?


I definitely think that there’s an important feedback. Somebody said to me the other day, “well blacks, when you look at it, based on census statistics, blacks have really high rates of turnout compared to whites.” And that is true, but it’s only true because those statistics eliminate blacks who are not in prison or jail. So when you actually add those folks back in, turnout rates decline substantially for blacks. When you add them back in, when you take account of all the people in prison and jail, only 20 percent of high school dropout black men actually voted in that election. That is just a level of political marginalization that no other group in America today has, with the exception of maybe undocumented immigrants.

And so the feedback loop [you identified] I think is important, but I want to suggest another feedback loop. So one of the people that I had a great exchange with about this article was a philosopher named Tommie Shelby, and he said to me, “but Vesla, most blacks have a sense that the criminal justice system is targeting them unfairly. Wouldn’t that lead to mobilization, a sense of urgency to combat this system that’s throwing them out of political life?” And I thought about his question for a long time. I responded and said “No.” [When] we went and talked to people who had actually undergone this experience — had contact with criminal justice — again and again and again, we had people tell us, “No, we’re not going to go vote, or I’m not going to contact the government because I’d better stay below the radar. If people see that I’m trying to make some claim or trying to ruffle things up, I’m going to get in more trouble than I already have been. I’d better stay below the radar.”

What’s important about that is that [the criminal justice system] is teaching people that if they engage, they will see harm visited upon them; they will see retribution. They have become fearful of the state that is supposed to be representing their interests. So the feedback that I want to point out — and that gets to the heart of this exchange I had with Tommie Shelby — is that, yes, [black Americans] feel a sense of collective injustice, but because the criminal justice system teaches them to stay low, they have decided to disengage, even when engaging would further their interests and could potentially get attention on this criminal justice issue.

And I think that’s one of the most troubling aspects of this. It’s teaching people to stay low, which further diminishes the political clout their community has. And I don’t know what can be done to get around that. I think a whole generation is growing up fearing state contact because the state contact they have learned their communities have is with punitive government. It’s not with representative government.

Do you think that this also has broader implications about not just racial inequality, but economic inequality independent of the obvious connection between racial inequality and economic inequality in the United States?

This goes beyond my research, but others have found that it has a very direct effect on racial inequality. There’s been a lot of research across different fields that shows that people who have contact with criminal justice — particularly those who have been incarcerated [experience] a host of very, very bad economic and social effects. It leads to less earnings ability later in life, it leads to marital breakups, it leads to children growing up with aggressive behaviors, it leads to more foster care placements. My colleague here at Yale, Chris Wildeman, is doing work on that.

A mother’s incarceration is much more likely to lead to a foster care placement and is one of the biggest contributors to why there is such vast disparity in foster care placements. Something like one in five black kids has at least one time in social services by the time they’re 18. That is an astronomical number. That’s like orphans in Russia.

Others have found that racial disparities in HIV/AIDS are explained in part — — I think a quarter of the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS contraction has to do with incarceration because AIDS rates among incarcerated people are very high. There’s been work on psychological disorders and the role incarceration plays [in that]. People who are incarcerated are more likely to have children who become homeless. There are just a huge number of bad effects that, when you multiply these effects across communities, you begin to see what Bruce Western says is absolutely right, which is that incarceration is not just a reflector of poverty and disadvantage, it is actually a driver of poverty and disadvantage. People who have been incarcerated are much more likely to be impoverished after they’ve had this encounter than people who are similarly situated. So the short answer is yes, I think that this has everything to do with racial inequality, and not just as a reflector or mirror of racial inequality but as actually a producer of racial inequality in America today.