Trading Democracy for Justice Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation
by Traci Burch
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Cloth: 978-0-226-06476-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-06493-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-06509-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.001.0001


The United States imprisons far more people, total and per capita, and at a higher rate than any other country in the world. Among the more than 1.5 million Americans currently incarcerated, minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented. What’s more, they tend to come from just a few of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the country. While the political costs of this phenomenon remain poorly understood, it’s become increasingly clear that the effects of this mass incarceration are much more pervasive than previously thought, extending beyond those imprisoned to the neighbors, family, and friends left behind.

For Trading Democracy for Justice, Traci Burch has drawn on data from neighborhoods with imprisonment rates up to fourteen times the national average to chart demographic features that include information about imprisonment, probation, and parole, as well as voter turnout and volunteerism. She presents powerful evidence that living in a high-imprisonment neighborhood significantly decreases political participation. Similarly, people living in these neighborhoods are less likely to engage with their communities through volunteer work. What results is the demobilization of entire neighborhoods and the creation of vast inequalities—even among those not directly affected by the criminal justice system.
The first book to demonstrate the ways in which the institutional effects of imprisonment undermine already disadvantaged communities, Trading Democracy for Justice speaks to issues at the heart of democracy.


Traci Burch is assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and research professor at the American Bar Foundation. She is a coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order. She lives in Chicago, IL.


“Traci Burch has tackled a public issue that threatens the very basis of democracy—the tendency of criminal convictions to taint the democratic involvement of those left behind—and done so in rigorous and creative ways. Trading Democracy for Justice is a splendid work of social science that will be widely read and cited and whose astonishing findings will expand our attention to the ways incarceration affects people beyond those convicted of crimes.”
— Katherine Cramer-Walsh, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Trading Democracy for Justice is social science at its best and is sure to be an instant classic. Traci Burch is one of a handful of political scientists working to shed new light on one of the most important problems of our time: the political demobilization that occurs in poor minority neighborhoods as a result of the unprecedented incarceration of young black men. The book is an outstanding achievement.”
— Mark Peffley, University of Kentucky, author of Justice in America

“The present correctional population reflects over four decades of the incredible growth of the criminal justice system, and an emerging body of research has established incarceration as a power engine of social inequality. Burch provides a strong contribution and extension to this line of research by examining the myriad and diverse ways that the criminal justice system affects neighborhood political participation. . . . Trading Democracy for Justice would be a great text for graduate seminars in sociology, criminology, and political science. Researchers studying stratification, incarceration and inequality, and political participation would all find this book to be quite useful.”
— American Journal of Sociology

Trading Democracy for Justice is a timely book that draws attention to the concentrated nature of punishment, describes salient consequences for neighborhood political mobilization, and helps to outline a future research program on this important topic.”
— Contemporary Sociology



DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0001

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0002
[Neighbourhood, Felony conviction, Collateral consequences, Mass incarceration]
This chapter traces the mechanisms through which the punishment and supervision of individual neighborhood residents in prison, on probation, or on parole shapes political participation and thus political equality among neighborhoods. The chapter will show how, for individuals living in disadvantaged communities, criminal justice supervision influences their experiences with the state and with fellow citizens, thus influencing the quality of democratic citizenship they enjoy. The main argument of this chapter is that neighborhood residents under criminal justice supervision are so disadvantaged and disaffected as a result of their punishment and its associated consequences that they cannot, and in many cases, do not want to contribute to the social, economic, and political life of the neighborhood. In turn, the impediments imposed by convictions on individuals also matter for their families and neighborhoods as well because the deteriorating circumstances of one neighborhood resident tends to affect the civic institutions and social life of the entire neighborhood. The chapter presents four mechanisms through which high supervision rates might influence political behavior and attitudes: cultural deviance, social disorganization, resource deprivation, and demobilization. (pages 15 - 43)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0003
[Neighbourhood and prison, Georgia incarceration, North Carolina incarceration, Community supervision]
The chapter presents an original and extensive collection of data on the imprisonment and community supervision rates of neighborhoods, or block groups, in two states: Georgia and North Carolina. These data were assembled from Departments of Corrections records, public health data, and proprietary estimates of 2008 population and other block group characteristics from Scan/US and Geolytics. These data richly describe the context of criminal justice supervision for nearly 10,000 neighborhoods across these two states. The chapter presents the variation in the extent to which adult and young adult residents of different neighborhoods experience prison, probation, and parole visually in maps of four major cities in each state, plus a table of descriptive statistics. To explain this variation, scatterplots and correlations between community supervision and imprisonment rates and poverty, homicide rates, percent black, and percent Latino are introduced. Block groups with high community supervision and imprisonment rates are presented and discussed in detail as well with an eye toward explaining these more extreme outliers. (pages 44 - 74)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0004
[Neighbourhood and prison, Georgia incarceration, North Carolina incarceration, Community supervision, Social Capital Benchmark Survey]
This chapter presents a growing set of evidence that imprisonment matters for politics--in particular, for individual political participation. The analysis of both individual- and neighborhood-level data, despite using multiple methods and data sources, all point clearly and conclusively in the same direction: that living in a neighborhood with a high spatial concentration of prisoners diminishes political participation. The evidence presented clearly demonstrates the impact of having a high concentration of prisoners in a particular neighborhood; neighborhoods with a higher concentration of prisoners voted at lower rates in the 2008 general election than neighborhoods with lower concentrations of prisoners, all other factors being equal. Moreover, the evidence suggests a strong causal linkage between imprisonment and voter turnout; among neighborhoods that had residents imprisoned in the months surrounding the 2008 election, voter turnout was significantly higher in those neighborhoods where the imprisonment happened after the election rather than before. While it is possible in some neighborhoods and under some circumstances sending neighborhood residents to prison might increase political activity, the findings presented here show that most often, the effect of imprisoning residents is to decrease participation. (pages 75 - 104)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0005
[Neighbourhood and prison, Georgia incarceration, North Carolina incarceration, Community supervision, Social Capital Benchmark Survey, Political alienation, Social disorganization]
This chapter probes more deeply into the how of the political effects of neighborhood imprisonment. Its goal is to explain the findings of the last chapter by examining the evidence for and against several possible mechanisms: cultural deviance, social disorganization, resource deprivation, and demobilization. This discussion will not attempt to quantify the relative contributions of the potential mechanisms to decreases in political participation. Rather, the aim of the chapter is to rule out any of the mechanisms that are not supported by the evidence. To make these claims, the analysis relies on the Charlotte sample of the 2000 Social Capital Benchmark Survey. The findings indicate little support for the cultural deviance explanation: residents of high imprisonment communities are no more likely to express anti-government or anti-police attitudes than people in low imprisonment communities. Certain aspects of resource deprivation also seem to be less viable explanations--people who live in high imprisonment communities are no more likely to report that time and information prevent them from participating in their communities as they would like. (pages 105 - 132)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0006
[2008 election, Obama campaign, GOTV, Voter registration]
This chapter presents fieldwork that was undertaken in 2008 in order to get a sense of the extent to which partisan and nonpartisan organizations attempted to mobilize disadvantaged places. The fieldwork attempted to document and describe the efforts of local campaign offices, county party headquarters, and nonpartisan grassroots organizations to contact, register, and turnout residents of disadvantaged communities in three cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago. These three cities are of particular interest given the variation in electoral competitiveness of their respective states in that election season. The project was designed to get a sense of the standard operating procedures of organizations that engage in voter mobilization efforts in order to see whether, as a matter of practice, they reached out to voters in ways that would engage the communities that were hardest hit by imprisonment. In order to shed light on these procedures, this aspect of the research employs multiple methods including interviews with directors and staff and participant observation. (pages 133 - 169)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.003.0007