New RSF Journal Issue: Criminal Justice Contact and Inequality

March 18, 2019

Policymakers and the public are increasingly aware of the dire consequences of mass incarceration for millions of individuals and families. However, incarceration is only one component of the larger criminal justice system. Many more individuals have contact with the criminal justice system through arrests, misdemeanor convictions, and the accumulation of fines and fees, without spending time behind bars. In Volume 5, Issue 1 of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, editors sociologist Kristin Turney (University of California, Irvine) and criminologist Sara Wakefield (Rutgers University) and a multi-disciplinary group of authors analyze how the range of criminal justice contact create, maintain, and exacerbate inequalities. Contributors show that the vast scope of the criminal justice system disproportionately targets low-income and minority populations, with serious consequences across the life course.

Several articles explore the ramifications of ongoing surveillance. Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan survey adolescents who come into contact with law enforcement and find that intrusive police stops contribute to heightened cynicism toward the legal system, suggesting that aggressive policing weakens youths’ deference to law and legal authorities. Robert Vargas and coauthors study police-dispatcher radio communications and show that data breaches where the dispatcher reveals confidential identifying information about individuals reporting criminal activity are more common in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Because police scanners are accessible by the public, these breaches make residents more vulnerable to criminals, gangs, or predatory businesses. Other contributors explore the effects of criminal justice contact on family life. Frank Edwards examines how families’ interactions with the child welfare system differ by race and shows that black and Native American families living in counties with high arrest rates are more likely to be investigated for child abuse and neglect than similar families in counties with low arrest rates. For whites, by contrast, poverty—rather than arrests—is the strongest predictor for contact with the child welfare system. In an ethnographic study of bail bond agents, Joshua Page and coauthors find that this industry uses predatory methods to extract bail from the female relatives and partners of incarcerated individuals, increasing financial hardship particularly among low-income women of color.

The criminal justice system is an institution of social stratification in the United States. By documenting how regimes of punishment and surveillance extend far beyond prison, this issue advances our understanding of how social inequalities are perpetuated by a supposedly impartial system.

View the full open-access issue of RSF here.



RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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