Arresting Citizenship The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control
by Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-13766-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-13783-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-13797-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.001.0001


The numbers are staggering: One-third of America’s adult population has passed through the criminal justice system and now has a criminal record. Many more were never convicted, but are nonetheless subject to surveillance by the state. Never before has the American government maintained so vast a network of institutions dedicated solely to the control and confinement of its citizens.
A provocative assessment of the contemporary carceral state for American democracy, Arresting Citizenship argues that the broad reach of the criminal justice system has fundamentally recast the relation between citizen and state, resulting in a sizable—and growing—group of second-class citizens. From police stops to court cases and incarceration, at each stage of the criminal justice system individuals belonging to this disempowered group come to experience a state-within-a-state that reflects few of the country’s core democratic values. Through scores of interviews, along with analyses of survey data, Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver show how this contact with police, courts, and prisons decreases faith in the capacity of American political institutions to respond to citizens’ concerns and diminishes the sense of full and equal citizenship—even for those who have not been found guilty of any crime. The effects of this increasingly frequent contact with the criminal justice system are wide-ranging—and pernicious—and Lerman and Weaver go on to offer concrete proposals for reforms to reincorporate this large group of citizens as active participants in American civic and political life.


Amy E. Lerman is assistant professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The Modern Prison Paradox. She lives in Berkeley, CA. Vesla M. Weaver is assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Political Science at Yale University. She lives in New Haven, CT, and is coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order.


“Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver have written a fabulous book that makes the original and important argument that the criminal justice system is rife with racial and economic inequalities and strips those who enter it of many basic rights of citizenship. In doing so, they address a breathtaking range of issues concerning contemporary criminal justice and connect these issues brilliantly to give a clear and compelling discussion of how institutions have helped create a new class of disempowered citizens.”
— Jeff Manza, New York University

Arresting Citizenship is a landmark book. It shines a bright light on the myriad ways that criminal justice policies are undermining American democracy. It is also an exemplary piece of social science research that combines coherent and powerful empirical analysis with impassioned calls to recognize injustice in our midst. This book will be tremendously important and a must-read for scholars working in relevant areas of the social sciences.”
— Joe Soss, author of Disciplining the Poor

Arresting Citizenship is a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done to preserve and expand the democratic principles of voice, responsiveness, and accountability.”
— Prison Policy Initiative

"Lerman and Weaver rigorously document how all types of contact with criminal justice institutions, ranging from police surveillance to incarceration, have transformed citizenship and democracy in America. Their intriguing and pathbreaking findings complicate our understanding of the carceral state and have broad implications for political inequality. . . . Well-written and thoughtfully researched, [the] book is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing social science literature on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration in the United States."
— American Journal of Sociology

“While conversations on citizenship and punishment tend to highlight felon disenfranchisement, Lerman and Weaver take us from the voting booth to ‘the everyday machinery of our modern democracy,’ where a class of what they call ‘custodial citizens’ might retain voting rights but nonetheless ‘move through their daily lives with the expectation and experience of police contact’ and ‘experience firsthand being a suspect, convict, inmate, or offender.’”
— Naomi Murakawa, Princeton University, Perspectives on Politics

“As the authors persuasively demonstrate in Arresting Citizenship, the vast number of custodial citizens and the vast controls and pernicious stigmas they must negotiate on a daily basis raise deeply troubling questions about the health of democratic institutions in the United States and about the character of the liberal state. Lerman and Weaver artfully mine a trove of general survey data and original interview data to document in mournful detail how millions of custodial citizens face powerful barriers to full citizenship that are largely invisible to the wider public but are politically, socially, and economically debilitating.”
— Marie Gottschalk, University of Pennsylvania, Perspectives on Politics

Arresting Citizenship is a compelling piece of scholarship that takes a hard look at the failings of US democracy and US crime control. . . . The authors bring together key sociological insights on socialization and stigma to show how respondents who had had contact with the criminal justice system were less likely to vote (even when voting rights were restored), to be civically engaged, to believe in their own efficacy, or to trust government. . . . Lerman and Weaver write with a sense of urgency and purpose, and they provide us both with a useful framework for understanding the nature of this dilemma, and with a toolkit for taking action. It is an essential text for any conversation going forward about penal reform.”
— Contemporary Sociology

“Lerman and Weaver make a significant contribution. They use survey results and interviews to reveal the civic attitudes of the group they call ‘custodial citizens’: not just those behind bars, but also those on probation, on parole, or who simply reside in heavily policed neighborhoods.”
— American Prospect



DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0001
[Political socialization, Criminal justice, Government, Democracy, Citizenship, Custodial Citizen, Civic Underclass, Alienation, Lifeworld]
Chapter 1 outlines the primary argument: criminal justice institutions have become a primary site of political socialization in America today. The growth of the carceral state has meant that some citizens now experience their most frequent and direct interactions with government through a prison, court, or police station. These custodial citizens develop a "carceral lifeworld": a criminal-justice framework through which government is both accessed and understood. Moving through antidemocratic institutions restructures what custodial citizens believe about the state, their own standing in the democratic community, and their likelihood of being involved in the political process of their nation. Instead of developing the tools and ethos of engaged citizens, citizens learn to stay quiet, make no demands, and be wary and distrustful of political authorities. In short, the democratic deficits of these political institutions are reflected in the citizens that are its primary clientele. The end result of American criminal justice policies is thus a growing class of disempowered and distrustful "custodial citizens" who occupy a subjectively and objectively subordinate position in the democratic community and who are conferred a limited citizenship: a civic underclass. (pages 1 - 29)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0002
[Drug war, Quality-of-life policing, Stop-and-frisk, Crime rate, Violence, Innocence, Hit rate]
Some readers might object that any damage criminal justice does to citizens' democratic capacities is disturbing, yes, but largely confined to those who have commit crimes and are therefore rightfully excluded from the polity. This chapter address this important concern. Drawing on a variety of data, it shows that being in the orbit of the criminal justice system now rivals other mainstays of citizen/state interaction, like receiving welfare and being contacted by politicians. It has become especially central in the lives of some citizens, namely the black urban poor. A second and more important rejoinder is this: the relationship between criminal behavior and contact with criminal justice is increasingly tenuous. Indeed, the vast majority of the contact citizens have with the criminal justice system never results in their being found guilty of committing a crime in a court of law. In addition, American criminal justice policies have expanded through "quality of life" policing and the drug war, such that large numbers of low-level offenders now regularly experience punitive contact with the state. (pages 30 - 57)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0003
[American political development, American exceptionalism, Political institutions, Democratic values, Democratic contraction, Responsiveness, Citizen voice, Equality, Antidemocratic]
Chapter 3's objective is to consider the ideal character of democracy in contrast with the core values, commitments, and practices of modern criminal justice institutions. Our argument is that, in the decades since our nation proclaimed itself to be largely rid of formally-sanctioned exclusionary practices, criminal justice institutions have increasingly embraced practices that are in deep tension with the ideas of equality, responsiveness, and citizen voice. Through the Prison Litigation Reform Act, expanding immunity for police and prosecutors and limits on the speech and association of prisoners, among other developments, institutions of criminal justice have been designed as places where citizens are not heard or responded to. We show that at each stage of contact, from police stops to court adjudication to incarceration, custodial citizens experience a state-within-a state that reflects few of our core democratic values. Thus, a larger part of our democracy, in practice, looks increasingly less like our democratic ideals in theory. (pages 58 - 91)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0004
[Methods, Policy feedback, Criminal justice, Socialization, Political Learning, Causality, Ethnography, Matching]
This chapter discusses the difficulties inherent in estimating the effects of criminal justice contact on political attitudes--particularly, the lack of necessary data, and the problems of establishing causality. The chapter previews the non-parametric matching procedure used throughout the book. After a brief overview of the survey data and interviews with 100 people in three cities, the chapter argues that criminal justice interactions exhibit at least six exceptional features that promote a different, more encompassing, and likely more durable form of political learning. (pages 92 - 109)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0005
[Norms, Citizenship, Custodial citizens, Rules of the game, Code of prohibitions, Stigma, Efficacy, Criminal record]
Chapter 5 lays out central aspects of the criminal justice-centered framework that is articulated by custodial citizens. First, individuals often develop a distinct set of rules and norms governing how to move through the social world, what we call the Code of Prohibitions and the Rules of the Game. Custodial populations also develop a 'stigma consciousness' that makes them less likely to think they can make legitimate demands of government and see those demands met. The result is a substantially diminished sense of external efficacy. Custodial citizens are less likely to believe that they are full and equal, to subscribe to ideas of equal chances, and less likely to believe they can wield influence. (pages 110 - 138)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0006
[Political trust, Perceptions of government, Responsiveness, Control, authoritarian]
For many, criminal justice is government; individuals failed to differentiate between this set of institutions and the political system writ large. Punitive interactions therefore influence an individual's perceptions and expectations of government. Theirs is an adversarial state that does not respond to their needs; rather, it limits their chances--where they are not voluntary participant in democratic politics, but involuntary subject to intervention from the state. In particular, custodial citizens exhibit extreme mistrust of political institutions and public officials and have low faith that the state will respond to their needs. (pages 139 - 156)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0007
[Intersectional disadvantage, Race, Blacks, Racial learning, Personal responsibility, Structural inequality, Political identity, Linked fate, Discrimination, Colorblind equality, Racial transcripts]
Blacks are now much more likely than at any time in history--or any other social group today--to experience punishment and surveillance at the hands of the state. Given this, criminal justice has been described as a "race-making institution"; it actively structures racial understandings within society, defines racial identities, and positions racial groups. Yet, unlike earlier institutions that "made race" in America, the role of race in criminal justice is often times obscured. Key institutional developments like the emergence of colorblind jurisprudence and personal responsibility frameworks prevented the development of a robust narrative among custodial black citizens. The result is that a gap has developed between what black custodial citizens see and experience, on the one hand, and the narratives available to help them make sense of it, on the other. As a consequence, a much more complex story emerges. Two opposing transcripts are evident among custodial citizens, one focused on personal choices and the other on racial oppression. Both fail to give respondents what they need--a way of understanding and challenging their diminished position. (pages 157 - 198)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0008
[Voting , Alienation, Civic engagement, Political participation, Avoidance, Withdrawal, Political behaviour, Exclusion, Civic underclass]
Criminal justice shapes not only ideas about government, but also civic habits and desires. Chapter 8 argues that the lessons imprinted by interactions with criminal justice institutions are antagonistic to democratic participation. Over and above legal restrictions that deny the franchise to millions of Americans is the de facto exclusion and voluntary withdrawal of millions more. Our qualitative results document custodial citizens' sense that they can't make demands of government and that dealings with government should be avoided. Thus, despite the host of barriers they face in acquiring jobs, securing safe neighbourhoods and accessing government services, they did not engage in political activism to protest their lot. Some feared any interactions with representatives of the state and avoided seeking out government, staying "below the radar." Our quantitative data confirm these findings. We find that progressive contact with criminal justice has deleterious effects on engagement in civic and political life. These demobilization effects are large, dwarfing traditional inputs to participation like time, money, and mobilization. (pages 199 - 230)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226137971.003.0009
[Criminal justice policy, Policy implications, Policy innovation, Justice reinvestment, Decarceration, Reform]
In the past few decades, America has transformed its criminal justice system; but criminal justice has also transformed America. The concluding chapter first discusses the implications of the book's central findings for American participatory democracy, racial equality, and state legitimacy. By showing blacks that America is a land of racial disappointment and separation, rather than equality and the American Dream, we have walked back the gains of the civil rights era. By undermining citizens' political trust and efficacy and decreasing political engagement among substantial segments of society, the politics of punishment and the policies they have engendered have diminished democracy. The book concludes by detailing a number of policy innovations that may begin the long and slow process of bringing custodial citizens back into the body politic. The prescriptions range from small programs like civic reintegration to large philosophical transformations. In sum, reform requires not only major changes in how many the nation exposes to criminal justice, but also that we confront the antidemocratic features of the system itself and re-inscribe democratic practices within these fundamental political institutions. (pages 231 - 260)

Appendix A: Quantitative Data

Appendix B: Qualitative Data

Appendix C: Three Strategies to Address Causality