Jul 092015
 

Incarceration without Representation is the disenfranchisement of prisoners in a country that otherwise guarantees equal representation to everybody. It has the unfortunate effect of making prisoners valuable to lawmakers and anybody else who has to win an election to stay in office.

Incarceration without Representation is the cause of the exponential growth of the U.S. prison population, the escalating racial disparities in incarceration rates, and the deterioration of the criminal justice system.  It causes these things wherever it exists.


The prisoner’s value comes from something called ''prison-based gerrymandering.'' The more prisoners in the area when district lines are drawn, the fewer able-to-vote, non-prisoners in that district.  That means fewer votes are needed to win reelection, fewer people to be accountable to. The prisoners therefore generate political power for the lawmakers who represent these districts.

There are no controls for subjective bias in political science.

Naturally, this benefit distorts their judgment on issues of criminal justice.  It biases them in favor of laws and law enforcement policies likely to increase incarceration, and against reforms likely to reduce it.   At least, their actions are consistent with such a bias.

Now, the experts in the field have been saying for a long time that the exponential rise in U.S. imprisonment and the escalating racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system are caused by lawmakers continually pursuing tougher laws, not because they think it’s necessary, or warranted, but because they expect to benefit personally by doing so.  They say the evidence is overwhelming.

What nobody has been able to figure out is what this benefit is that American lawmakers always think they are going to get by pursuing tougher laws, or why it doesn’t seem to affect lawmakers in any other country.

There is good evidence that the missing benefit is the benefit created by incarceration without representation.


First of all, the only States in the U.S. that do not disenfranchise prisoners are Maine and Vermont. The states with the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S. are Maine and Vermont.incarceration rates by state                                                     source: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/

The odds of that happening randomly are 1 in 1,125.  It happened because prisoners are not valuable to lawmakers in Maine and Vermont.  To them, a prisoner is just another person to be accountable to, another vote you have to fight for.  There’s no such thing as prison-based gerrymandering in Maine and Vermont.

And the thing that separates Main and Vermont from the rest of the U.S. is the same thing that separates the U.S. from the rest of the modern world.

Lots of countries disenfranchise prisoners to some extent, but nobody does it like the U.S.A. Not only does the U.S. voting ban extend to all prisoners, in several states the ban continues after release from prison. Most European countries, on the other hand, allow prisoners to vote.  Some countries let some of their prisoners vote.  For example, Benin only disenfranchises prisoners sentenced to three months or more.

The stricter a nation’s prisoner-disenfranchisement laws,the higher its incarceration rate. The researchers who discovered the correlation did not try to explain it beyond suggesting that the more people a nation puts in prison, the more punitive it is, and the more punitive it is, the more likely it is to ''deprive prisoners of citizenship rights.'' I think they got cause and effect reversed.  First comes the loss of citizenship rights, then comes prison.

The only Western European countries that ban all prisoners from voting the way the U.S. does, are England and Wales, and England and Wales are experiencing the very same pathological phenomenon that the U.S. has been experiencing, just smaller.  They have the highest incarceration rate of any Western European country, and it’s growing exponentially.  They have growing racial disparities, in their prison populations, just like the U.S. does, and they blame it all on new laws, not increases in crime, just like the U.S. does. Some say what is happening in the U.S. is just a more excessive version of what is happening in England and Wales.

The reason it’s more excessive in the U.S. is that the U.S. had a very big head start.  This phenomenon only occurs in countries that distribute government representation based on the number of people living in the area.  The power has to come from the people, and not, for instance, from the property they own, in order for there to be any reason to increase the local population with prisoners.  It’s been this way in the U.S. since 1789.  It didn’t become a reality in Great Britain until well into the 20th Century. They’re just getting started putting people in prison.

Incarceration without Representation causes racism

Once you realize that lawmakers are deliberately, if unconsciously, increasing incarceration, it’s easy to see why African Americans have been growing increasingly over-represented throughout the penal system.

The lawmakers who wish to increase incarceration do not want to go to prison themselves, or put their children there.  Since most of them are not minority members, policies that focus their “toughness” on minorities are more likely to pass.

And since African Americans have historically been America’s largest minority group, policies that target African Americans are likely to cause a bigger increase in incarceration than policies that target other minority groups.  So these are the policies most worth pursuing.


I know everybody wants to reduce incarceration in the United States.  It’s not going to happen until we let prisoners vote.  As long as prisoners are valuable to lawmakers there will be lawmakers who are convinced we must get tougher on crime.  They’ll fight reform like their jobs depended on it.  Things will just keep getting worse.

On the other hand, once we let prisoners vote, the incentive to incarcerate will be gone, the perpetual droning to be tougher on crime will go away, and we’ll finally be able to turn things around.

Prisoner disenfranchisement serves no purpose.  It is not a deterrent.  Nobody doesn’t rob a liquor store because they’re afraid of losing the right to vote.

Here’s my fantasy.  This post goes viral, people quickly become aware of the need to get rid of our prisoner disenfranchisement laws, and they make it happen.

Make it happen.

“It’s almost the perfect crime. A legislator gets extra influence without having to be accountable to more constituents, and the data says the district is legit.”

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative, being quoted in What Is Prison-Based Gerrymandering?

“The prisons are also a source of political power to upstate Republicans because the inmates are counted as permanent residents when legislative districts are drawn — even though they cannot vote and their actual homes may be hundreds of miles away.”

Less Crime: No Reason to Shut Prisons, New York Times, April 12, 2008

“The representatives of these districts literally have imported their constituents by advocating construction of prisons in upstate areas and maintenance of harsh sentencing laws.”

Brief Amici Curiae In Support Of Plaintiff-Appellant Jalil Abdul Muntaqim | Prison Policy Initiative.

“‘The people elected in those districts with high prison populations are more conservative and support more mass incarcerations and the existence of prisons,’ Green [Alice Green, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice] said. ‘They use the numbers to get elected, but they don’t represent [the prisoners’] interests.’ “

 Keith B. Richburg, As Census Nears, How to Count Inmates Is Debated – washingtonpost.com,  (April 26, 2009).

“While the U.S. has a higher rate of violent crime than many comparable nations, most scholars in the field attribute the dramatic increase in the use of prison almost entirely to changes in policy, and not crime rates. That is, policymakers at all levels of government have enacted laws and procedures designed to send more people to prison and to keep them in prison for longer periods of time.”

Lessons of the “Get Tough” Movement in the United States” Marc Mauer. The Sentencing Project. Washington, D.C., Presented at the International Corrections and Prison Association, 6th Annual Conference. Beijing, China 25 October 2004, page 2

“Spiraling incarceration rates were not a simple mechanical response to crime rates… . Instead, rising imprisonment rates were due to policy changes in responses to crime, to the wave of “tough on crime” policies that increased the use of prison as a punishment for crime, increased the length of prison sentences for any given crime, and increased the rate of revocations of probation and parole. “

Explaining State Black Imprisonment Rates 1983-1999” Pamela E. Oliver and James E. Yocom University of Wisconsin, at 3

“It is well understood that the shifting crime control policies that led to these patterns in imprisonment were products of political decisions by elected officials to be “tougher” on crime generally…”

Explaining State Black Imprisonment Rates 1983-1999” Pamela E. Oliver and James E. Yocom University of Wisconsin, page 3

“The evidence is overwhelming that the spiraling imprisonment of African Americans is due largely to the political decisions and organizational incentives around the drug war.  Nationally, the policies were put in place because the people advocating them expected to benefit from the policies.”

Tracking the Causes and Consequences of Racial Disparities in Imprisonment, A proposal to the National Science Foundation. Pamela Oliver, Marino Bruce, page 6-7

“What we don’t know is why American policymakers, nearly alone among leaders of western governments, chose to enact such harsh policies and Laws, or why practitioners became so much tougher.”

Explanations of American punishment policies: A national history.” Michael Tonry. Punishment & Society July 2009 vol. 11 no. 3 377-394

“In 48 states (all but Maine and Vermont) and in the District of Columbia, citizens lose the right to vote upon conviction of a felony; in at least a handful of states, the right is also lost upon conviction of a misdemeanor.”

Voting With A Criminal Record – Executive Summary | American Civil Liberties Union,  (last visited June 25, 2015).

no other contemporary

Berans, Angela, Uggen, Xhristopher and Manza, Jeff. “Ballot Manipulation and the ‘Menace of Negro Domination’: Racial Threat and Felon Disenfranchisement, 1850-2000” page 562

http://www.socsci.umn.edu/~uggen/Behrens_Uggen_Manza_ajs.pdf

“Most European countries allow prisoners to vote. ”

– BBC NEWS, Times Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3523231.stm (last visited May 7, 2015).

 Uggen, C. and Van Brakle, M. L. “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Law and Society Association <Not Available>. 2009-05-25 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p96248_index.html, at 60

“Consistent with expectations, we find prisoner disenfranchisement to be concentrated in less democratized nations with high incarceration rates and low levels of economic development.” –  “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement” page 59

“Finally, nations with the most restrictive disenfranchisement policies have a far higher incarceration rate than those that disenfranchise some or none of their prisoners.” –  “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement” page 70

“We find clear evidence linking prisoner disenfranchisement to low political and economic development, high ethnic heterogeneity, and punitive criminal justice policies” – “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement” page 74

“On average, European nations that disenfranchise all prisoners have the lowest GDP, arc the least democratized, and have the highest incarceration rate” – “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement” page 70

“Although our quantitative analysis can only suggest the reasons for this pattern of association, it seems likely that more punitive nations devalue and stigmatize those convicted of crimes and are hence more likely to deprive them of citizenship rights.” – – “Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement”  page 72

“The 12 European countries that ban voting by all serving prisoners are Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Moldova, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, the Ukraine and the United Kingdom.  With the exception of the United Kingdom and Spain, these are all former Eastern Bloc states with limited histories of universal suffrage, constitutional rights, and independent courts. In the case of Spain, one authority advises that disfranchisement in Spain “rarely happens.”  –  ACLU Out of Step with The World.  An Analysis of Felony Disfranchisement in the U.S. and other Democracies Published May 2006 at 4-6

“Ireland and Spain both allow prisoners to vote.” – Berans, Angela, Uggen, Xhristopher and Manza, Jeff. “Ballot Manipulation and the ‘Menace of Negro Domination’: Racial Threat and Felon Disenfranchisement, 1850-2000” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American sociological Association, Atlanta Hilton Hotel, Atlanta GA, Aug 16, 2003

“Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain are among 18 countries with no ban. ” Call for prisoners’ right to vote, BBC NEWS, Times Online,  (last visited  May 7, 2015).

According to ACLU The only two western European countries that automatically disenfranchise all prisoners the way the United States does are United Kingdom and Spain, though in Spain it rarely happens.  Two other sources say Spain allows prisoners to vote. These researchers say Spain allows prisoners to vote, the BBC says Spain allows prisoners to vote.  

“England and Wales imprison a higher percentage of their populations than any other Western European country…Only Eastern European states imprison more than England and Wales. Spain (140.3 per 100,000) has the second highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe.”

England and Wales lead Europe in imprisonment – World Socialist Web Site, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/01/pris-j25.html (last visited May 11, 2015).

“the [British] prison population is increasing exponentially at a time when crime rates are supposedly falling (Coyle, 2006).”

Women In Prison: A Review of the Current Female Prison System: Future Directions and Alternatives, Internet Journal of Criminology © 2008  page 25

“In the last five years the prison population has risen by more than half, from 43,195 to 65,000 in 1998; it is expected to rise to over 82,000 within the next seven years.[1] Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, has argued that ‘the reason for this exponential increase…[is] the vocal expression of opinion by influential public figures that custody is an effective penalty… Judges and magistrates have been the subject of criticism…for imposing what are widely portrayed as excessively lenient sentences’.”

House of Commons – Home Affairs – Third Report, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmselect/cmhaff/486/48603.htm (last visited June 27, 2015).

“[A] landmark report released today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission … shows that the proportion of people of African-Caribbean and African descent incarcerated here is almost seven times greater to their share of the population.  The report, which aims to set out how to measure “fairness” in Britain, says that ethnic minorities are “substantially over-represented in the custodial system.”

“The commission found that five times more black people than white people per head of population in England and Wales are imprisoned. The ethnic minority prison population has doubled in a decade – from 11,332 in 1998 to 22,421 in 2008. Over a similar period, the overall number of prisoners rose by less than two thirds.”

Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor, More black people jailed in England and Wales proportionally than in US | Society | The Guardian,  (last visited June 20, 2015).

“The policies implemented in the last decade mean incarceration levels in Britain are now among the highest in western Europe. England and Wales have an imprisonment rate of 155 per 100,000 and Scotland of 149 per 100,000 of the population. This contrasts with rates of less than 100 per 100,000 for most of Britain’s neighbors.”

Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor, More black people jailed in England and Wales proportionally than in US | Society | The Guardian,  (last visited Apr. 28, 2015)

“Owers accepted that ‘rhetoric’ from Labour politicians had created a ‘climate’ where the number of jailings was growing exponentially. ‘If you lock up this number of people this is the consequence. This is what is going to happen: more people are going to die in our prisons,’ she warned.”

Prison population in Britain reaches record levels – World Socialist Web Site, published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)

“Whilst these [American] trends are exceptional in the western world – indeed, Garland (2001: 1) has described them as a ‘pathological phenomenon’ – it could be argued that they are once again merely a more excessive version of what is occurring in England and Wales, where the same period has seen the prison population almost double from 40,000 since 1971.”

Prison Readings: A critical introduction to prisons and imprisonment. Yvonne Jewkes, Helen Johnston.  2006. Willan Publishing. Pages 285-286

 Posted by at 12:39 am

  4 Responses to “Incarceration without Representation”

  1. Brilliant. How come nobody else knows this?

  2. […] So, both the first half and the second half of the 20th century experienced an exponential rise in U.S. incarceration, and, in both cases, it was caused not by growing crime rates, but by new laws, much of which targeted drugs or other victimless crimes.  It’s the same phenomenon, and it has the same explanation. […]

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