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Devah Pager

Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration

(University Of Chicago)

Most Americans find the idea of serving two punishments for the one crime unfair, yet according to Princeton Professor of Sociology Devah Pager, this happens all the time. A person spends time in jail, and then suffers from the stigma of incarceration after being released. Formerly jailed individuals are routinely “denied access to jobs, housing, educational loans, welfare benefits, political participation, and other key social goods on the basis of their criminal background.”


This isn’t news to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the justice system. However, Pager extends her analysis one step further through an experimental field study in metropolitan Milwaukee. She sends out pairs of young men with matched resumes on job searches for employment and makes some startling discoveries.


The Princeton professor shows that employers regularly exclude ex-offenders from consideration for entry-level, low-paying jobs, and provides strong evidence that the situation for young black men is significantly worse than for their white counterparts. (Pager’s research only deals with males.) Her study shows that white men who do not have a criminal record are more than twice as likely to be considered for a job as white men with ex-offender records. A white man with a criminal record has the same chance of being considered for a job as a black man without one. A black man without a record, or a white man with a criminal history, is three times more likely to be considered for a job than a black man with a criminal record.


As finding a job is one of the strongest predictors that a person won’t return back to crime and jail, this creates a vicious cycle. The current clamp down on law-breaking behavior actually generates conditions that make future criminal activity more likely. It also leads many Americans to believe that black men are somehow inherently more delinquent than white individuals.


Be forewarned, Pager’s book isn’t a mass-market treatise on the ills of the justice system, but an academic study. The Princeton professor’s language is scholarly and her research analytical. This may be the book’s biggest problem, because her findings deserve a wider audience and a national conversation.


Pager begins with a history of how public policy towards jails in America developed during the 20th century, from mid-century calls for removing people from prison to rehabilitate them to the Nixon era “War on Crime” to the current state of affairs. “Today, the United States boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than two million individuals currently behind bars,” according to Pager. That’s considerably more people than are employed worldwide by either McDonalds or Wal-Mart, more than 15 times the number of employees working for the ubiquitous Starbucks coffee chain.


More shocking is the criminalization of young black men. Black men comprise more than 40 percent of the US prison population while making up only 7 percent of the general populace. Over the course of their lives, nearly one in three young black men will spend time in prison. As Pager notes, young black men are more likely to go to prison than attend college or serve in the military. The Princeton professor isn’t the first to point this out, but she does well to bring this up in context of her research for two reasons.


First, all Americans should be outraged by these facts. They should be shouting this information from the rooftops, demanding explanations from their elected officials, and actively working for solutions. Why is America incarcerating so many people and why are so many of them black? While a discussion of the situation goes far beyond the scope of this review, I believe that much of the blame belongs to the nation’s drug policies. If America stopped jailing its people for drug offenses, its problem of over-crowded prisons would be solved.


Secondly, and albeit more important for Pager, we are creating a largely black underclass of ex-offenders who will not be able to be reintegrated into society and hence have enormous social consequences—not to mention economic costs—for all. Pager notes that approximately 650,000 people per year are released from our nation’s jails and prisons. The fact that “ex-offenders are one-half to one-third as likely as equally qualified non-offenders to be considered by employers is clear evidence of the barriers to employment imposed by a criminal record.” Common sense says that if these individuals can’t find jobs, they will commit more crimes for pure economic survival.


Much of what Pager says flies against the conventional belief these days that says that race is no longer a strong barrier against getting a job. She points out that most Americans no longer believe that ascribed characteristics, like race, hinder a person from employment. That may be true for middle-class and high-end jobs, but unfortunately, racism is still a problem on the low end of the pay scale, where most people with a record look for work.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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