Incarcerating Democracy


The right to vote is the foundation of democracy and is critical to citizenship. The United States’ experiment in“American Democracy” is often touted as one of the most representative forms of governance in the modern world. However, the American politic has never experienced the full measure of representation in U.S. politics.Specifically, descendants of the slave trade, first nations people, women, the economically disadvantaged, and those disenfranchised due to criminal convictions have never had the same access to power as men ofEuropean descent. For the greater part of U.S. history, laws have prohibited many groups from the right of a representative government. Decades of social justice advocacy, and civil rights movements have overturned laws that promoted outright exclusion. However, powerful policymakers and power brokers have continued to invoke strategic barriers to the ballot by prohibiting traditionally disenfranchised communities from influencing political outcomes.

In 2020 it was estimated that 5.2 million U.S. citizens could not vote due to a felony conviction (Uggen &Fettig, 2020). Disenfranchisement is not only limited to individuals in prison. At least four states disenfranchise all prisoners and parolees, 16 states limit the vote of those in prison, on parole, or on probation, and 11 states disenfranchise individual’s post-incarceration. Around 33 million U.S. citizens were purged from voter rolls between 2014 and 2018 (Jackson & Daley, 2020). Gerrymandering in states like Georgia, Michigan,Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have been persistent problems. Nearly 59 million U.S. citizens live in states where the party with control of the legislature received less votes in 2018. Voter disenfranchisement has created a crisis in American democracy.

The U.S. 2020 election cycle was ripe with controversy and contention. The Trump Team pushed the narrative of widespread voter fraud while right wing organizations and surrogates for President Trump challenged the validity of mail-in ballots and attempted to decertify voting outcomes. Voter advocacy groups countered with suits of their own. The N.A.A.C.P. charged the Trump Team and the Republicans with violating both the VotingRights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act. Rock the Vote, Voto Latino, Common Cause, Map Light and Free Press challenged President Trump’s executive order which sought to end liability protections for social media platforms.The voting rights advocacy groups viewed the President’s executive order as retaliation against Twitter for factchecking his claims about mail in ballots and voter fraud and an attack on their ability to mobilize voters.This brief, focused on Incarcerating Democracy, is a look at the ongoing and emerging approaches for limiting representative government as well as the crime of voter suppression itself, which ultimately curtails the possibilities of democracy. In this brief, we highlight the current tactics used to implement voter suppression. Finally, we discuss the strategic measures which can be taken to combat disenfranchisement tactics. We think it is important to examine this issue to demonstrate that in spite of the social justice victories of the last half century, there are serious threats to the democratic process.

The challenge of identifying voter suppression

Voter suppression is generally employed by using three major strategies: stripping voting rights from a group of people, creating extremely difficult barriers to voting, and attempts to nullify the opposition’s vote. In order to identify voter suppression in this review, we look at three sources of information.

First, we look at incarceration rates in each state, this measure gives us an idea of how intensely the state isdedicated to legally removing citizens from voting eligibility. In every state except Vermont and Maine, prisonincarceration equals voter disenfranchisement (Uggen & Fettig, 2020).

Another way to identify voter suppression is by examining instances of media-sponsored misinformation during the elections. Media Matters wrote a series of articles documenting the media’s role in voter suppression during the 2020 elections. The information provided by Media Matters highlights how news agencies can influences voter turnout through the selective sharing of information. While the information that we examine on media misinformation is an indicator of attempts at voter suppression, determining the extent of voter suppression is difficult because we simply don’t have data on how many people don’t show up due to misinformation.The third way that we can identify voter suppression is by examining the election-related court cases emerging from each state. The court cases will give us a picture of the logistical obstacles and obstructionist tactics used by political actors to limit the influence of everyday voters. While several social forces and factors are involved in voter disenfranchisement, we ultimately highlight the role of the criminal justice system, the media, and politicians in stopping the vote. While we attempt to provide a picture of the extent to which voter disenfranchisement exists, the measures and methods are a work in progress, and we welcome constructive critique. Feedback is gratefully appreciated and should be sent to

Types of voter suppression

The tactics used to suppress voting are diverse and complex. Generally, tactics involve taking away the right or ability of the individual to vote or creating a logistical barrier to voting. After analyzing several cases, we identified seven key methods used to suppress voting participation. These methods include voting site difficulties, disinformation, legal disenfranchisement, logistical obstacles, voter purges, voter identification (ID) laws and gerrymandering. The following section on voter oppression is divided into three categories of suppression: Legal disenfranchisement, Logistical obstacles, and disinformation.
Legal Disenfranchisement
Criminal Justice related voter suppression is a widespread issue in the United States. In all states but Maine and Vermont, a felony conviction means losing one’s right to vote. In 2020 approximately 5.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting because of felony convictions (Uggen & Fettig, 2020). Over-policing and wrongful prosecutions in communities targeted through institutional racism can also lead to the loss of the franchise.Criminal convictions and disenfranchisement resulting from policing and prosecution actions is well documented.

Vote purges can happen in one of two ways. First, states may devise plans to eliminate voters from the voting rolls. In many cases voters may not even know that they have been eliminated from voter registration. State officials have the ability to disenfranchise voters on a different scale. A clear example occurred in 2019 when the Texas Secretary of State claimed that 95,000 voters in Texas were suspected of being non citizens, most of these voters were Latino/a (Ura 2019). The accusation was repeated by Ken Paxton the Texas Attorney General,President Trump added to the accusation that 58,000 people voted illegally (Ura 2019). The accusation led toGalveston County Officials distributing proof of citizenship letters to registered voters who were told to provide proof of citizenship in 30 days or have their registration cancelled (Ura 2019). Ultimately the Secretary ofStates accusations were found to be unsubstantiated and riddled with errors. In the process Latino/a voters were singled out for their ethnicity and had their voting rights threatened to reckless and baseless claims by top state officials.
Logistical Obstacles
There are several ways that voting site difficulties can manifest. If there are too few employees at the site orstaff that don’t know how to properly handle voting machines, this can be a challenge. Machines that are not working or are not calibrated properly or machines that show you voting for someone other than the candidate that you intended to vote for electronically are also obstacles. Other staffing issues could arise from improper counting of absentee or early voting ballots, hostility towards voters, and hostility towards poll watchers.The logistical obstacles to voting are many and varied and usually involve making it difficult for certain communities to vote. Some tactics include reducing the number of polling locations, reducing the number of early voting sites, reducing the days where early voting is available, changing polling locations so that they are inconvenient to minority voters, and last-minute voting location changes are additional logistical obstacles that potential voters may face. For example, Harris County, Texas (home to Houston), implemented a workaround to this barrier by offering drive through voting options. An approach that was later supported by judicial review.

In 2020 the Trump Administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis became a logistical obstacle to the election process. The manner in which the administration approached COVID led to concerns about the safety of the voting process. Health concerns led to a record year of mail in ballots. The mail in process is more strenuous for election workers because they must remove ballots from envelopes to verify their validity before they can be processed through vote counting machines (Philipose 2020). It is also worth noting that a study by StanfordUniversity found 30,000 cases of confirmed COVID cases linked to President Trump’s campaign rallies (Philipose 2020).

Strict voter identification laws can have a major influence on voting participation. More than 21 million citizens in the U.S. don’t possess government photo ID (ALCU News and Commentary, 2020). Over two-thirds of states require identification at the polls. Strict photo identification exists in seven states. These laws have been estimated to reduce turnout by 2-3 percent (ALCU News and Commentary, 2020).

Individual states have the discretion to allow or limit voting based on the identifying documents that an individual has. A 2017 study by Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson found that strict photo identification laws differentially negatively impact the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and multi-racial Americans (Newkirk II, V. 2017). They note that most of the prior research on the impact of strict voter identification laws shows that these laws reduce turnout. Turnout reduction typically benefits Republican candidates, and the effects of the voter reduction is along the class and education lines. The study by Hajnal, Lajevardi, and Nielson confirms the court ruling in Veasey v.Abbott. Texas passed SB14 in 2011, which mandated the use of specific types of photo identification in order to vote. The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the law. A district court found the law to have a racially discriminatory purpose and the state appealed. Ultimately the court found that the bill breached section 2 of the voting rights act by imposing disparate and significant burdens on African American and Hispanic voters.Gerrymandering is the act of rigging voting districts to keep the governing political party in power. The goal is to draw boundaries of legislative districts so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by the party’s candidates. The key tactics of gerrymandering are commonly referred to as cracking and packing (Wines,2019). Cracking involves splitting opposition voters into several districts to dilute the political block so they will be outnumbered in each of their voting districts (Wines, 2019). Packing involves placing as many of the opposition’s voters in a district as possible so that surrounding districts can be won (Wines, 2019).
There are a number of ways that disinformation can be used to undermine the voting process. The purposeful publishing of incorrect dates and publishing false information about where to vote are some common examples. Charges of voting fraud is a very common claim used to undermine the legitimacy of mail in ballots. During the 2016 election Donald Trump began pushing the unsubstantiated claim that mail in ballots is a major source of voter fraud. As President, Trump established a voter integrity commission (Villenue 2018). The commission found no evidence to support Trump’s claim of widespread voter fraud (Villenue 2018). Although claims that absentee and mail in ballots are a major source of voter fraud have been debunked it is a narrative that republican leaders continue to promote.

False media reports in the political arena that discourage members of targeted communities is another widelyused vehicle of misinformation. However, the most dangerous types of media misinformation undermine legitimatedemocratic processes (Philo, 2020). When the media presents false narratives about mail-in voting or voter ID,it legitimizes future acts of voter suppression. The belief that legitimates processes are corrupt can lead to new laws that limit participation.
The Justice System and Disenfranchisement
One of the types of voter suppression that is not always evident on voting day is legal disenfranchisement. That isbecause effective legal disenfranchisement happens long before election days. Legal disenfranchisement that isthe result of over-policing and over-prosecution is the open secret that does not show up in election day analysis.According to Uggen and Fettig (2020) 5.2 million U.S. citizens could not vote due to a felony conviction in 2020.African Americans and Latinx citizens are disproportionately impacted by felony disenfranchisement. AfricanAmericans are 12 percent of the adult population in the U.S. and comprise 33% of those incarcerated (Gramlich2020). Latinx citizens are 16% of the population and make up 23% of the people in prison (Gramlich 2020).Five of the states in this study are above the national average on incarceration.

Their national incarceration rankings are as follows:Georgia (4th), Texas (7th), Arizona (8th), Florida(14th), Nevada (17th), and Pennsylvania (22nd).With the exception of Pennsylvania, these states haveanother common thread: a national reputation forhighly racialized politics.

The laws preventing convicts from voting in U.S.elections are directly related to the history of chattelslavery. During legalized chattel slavery in the UnitedStates, humans were trafficked and owned by richlandowners and had no legal rights. The abolitionof chattel slavery in the U.S. came with a catch, the13th Amendment allows those individuals that havebeen convicted of a crime to be in servitude of thestate. A convicted individual may not be owned by anindividual, but they can be property of the state. The13th Amendment has allowed descendants of chattelslavery to be disenfranchised through over-policingand wrongful convictions. The Criminal Justice Systemcan be a tool for limiting the political developmentand progress of communities traditionally targeted byinstitutional racism.

State by state analysis of alleged 2020 voter suppression cases

In this section we conduct a state-by-state analysis of potential suppression cases in the 2020election. The states examined are Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan,Arizona, and Texas. Focus was placed on these states because they were considered “at play” orwinnable for either of the major presidential candidates.
In Georgia there were charges of disinformation, logistical obstacles, voting site difficulties, and decertificationattempts. Voting rights advocates have called out right leaning media for distributing false information aboutwho could and could not vote. In addition, there were accusations of voting site difficulties. Polling locations inPOC communities closed early while others had reduced hours. Another accusation claimed that polling siteworkers used intimidation against voters to pressure votes for Trump and/or stopping voting.A key factor in the Trump campaign’s attempt to win Georgia were several cases claiming that voter fraudtainted the integrity of the results. In Pearson v. Kemp (U.S. District Court, Northern Division), Attorney SidneyPowell makes the claim that voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems were rigged to allow Democraticofficials to add votes for Joe Biden (Williams & Rada, 2020). The case was dismissed. In Boland v. Raffensperger(Fulton County Superior Court), Boland claims that over 20,000 ballots were cast by non-residents and thatmail ballot signatures were not properly screened. Boland sought an audit for the decertification of the state’selection results. This request was denied. In Brooks v. Mahoney (U.S. District Court, Southern District), a groupof Republican voters made the claim that a software glitch in voting machines led to incorrect voting outcomes.This case was dismissed. The Trump campaign and the Georgia Republican Party asked the Chatham CountySuperior Court to not count mail-in ballots that they alleged did not arrive on time (Williams & Rada, 2020). Thiscase was dismissed. In Trump v. Raffensperger (Fulton County Superior Court), the Trump campaign claimed thatthousands of ballots were cast for individuals who were not eligible voters (Williams & Rada, 2020). This casewas dismissed.
In Nevada, the key challenge to voters was a decertification attempt. A right wing led organization, The ElectionIntegrity Project attempted to have the courts decertify the election results. Their claim was that some 1,400people living in California voted in the Nevada election. The request was denied. According to Media Matters,the chief correspondent for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Scott Thurman, sought to boost Trump’s claims withoutproviding any evidence (Pleat, 2020b). Other news sources provided the context that voter fraud was claimedby the Trump team. However, Thurman reported the claim as fact, an act that could undermine the credibility ofelection results with some citizens.
A September 2020 court ruling in Florida prohibited hundreds of thousands of citizens from voting if theystill owed court fines or fees from past felony convictions (Pleat, 2020a). Media in the state of Florida failedto produce news coverage that detailed how the state’s obstructionist tactics impacted the Black community.Approximately two-thirds of the Florida population supported the 2018 bill that restored the right to vote forthose with prior felonies. However, a GOP-lead state legislature undermined the law by passing a bill statingthat all court fees and fines must be paid in order to vote. Some media reports on the ruling noted that Floridadoes not have a system to track fees. However, less than half of local news reports mentioned the ruling wouldallow hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens to be disenfranchised.

In addition to media misinformation, Florida voters faced logistical obstacles to voting. Many Florida residentswere unable to register to vote because the voter registration website crashed, and a limited extension wasgiven. Organizations such as Organize Florida, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, New Florida Majority, andthe Dream Defenders asked for an injunction to stop the state from enforcing the limited registration deadline(Dream Defenders vs. Desantis). In United Healthcare Workers East v. Dejoy the Florida postmaster was sued. The
In Wisconsin conservative voters and politicians attempted to decertify votes, making the claim that absenteevotes were used in voting fraud schemes. In Feehan v. Wisconsin Elections Commission, conservative voters claimedthat the Wisconsin voting results should be decertified because the state did not take proper measures to verifythe identification of absentee voters. This case was dismissed and is being appealed.
Pennsylvania is another state where conservative political officials claimed mail in ballots threatened the integrityof the election.President Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit to limit mail-in votes to those that arrived without the secrecyenvelope to protect identity. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that ballots without the proper envelopecould be thrown out even though they were counted in previous elections. Most of the new reports in the state didnot report that the court ruling meant voters would have to use the secrecy envelope or have their ballot rejected(Pleat and Hagle 2020). In Donald J. Trump for President v. Montgomery County Board of Elections, the Trumpcampaign filed suit to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. The NAACP of Pennsylvania filed a friendof the court brief to guarantee that valid absentee and mail in votes would be counted. The court rejected theTrump campaigns lawsuit.
In Michigan there were multiple attempts to decertify results. In Donald J. Trump for President Inc. v. Benson, theTrump campaign attempted to decertify the 2020 election results The Trump campaign was unsuccessful in thiscase. In Bally et. al. v. Whitmer et. al., three individuals filed a lawsuit to exclude the voting results from Ingham,Washtenaw, and Wayne counties. They made the claim that votes cast in those counties were illegal. TheNAACP got involved to prevent the disenfranchisement of its constituents. The Plaintiffs eventually decided tovoluntarily dismiss the lawsuit. Had their original request been successful over 1 million voters would have beendisenfranchised.

Media Matters reports that the Sinclair Broadcast Company is responsible for spreading false right-wingnarratives that undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election (Pleat & Wexler, 2020). The unsubstantiated claimthat the Sinclair Company promoted is that post offices in Michigan were backdating ballots to look like they were received in time to be counted. The narrative that was spread is consistent with the Trump team’s attemptsto delegitimize mail-in ballots.
A false claim spread widely on social media that poll workers gave Trump supporters sharpies to fill out ballotsin an attempt to invalidate their votes. In spite of attempts to counter the claim, the false narrative spread widelyduring the election (Gogarty, 2020). The Arizona Republican Party sought to overturn the Biden victory bydecertifying election results. In Arizona Republican Party vs. Fontes, the Republican Party petitioned the courtsto withhold certifying election results in the state’s most populated county until hand count could be conducted. Ajudge rejected the Republican party’s attempt to delay the certification and dismissed the case.
In Texas several forms of alleged legal disenfranchisement occurred, including Voter ID issues, voting sitedifficulties, an attempt to decertify results in four other states. In one case the plaintiffs argued that drive-through voting was an unlawful expansion of curbside voting. One of the most bizarre attempts to block votingresults came from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton asked the Supreme Court to block Georgia,Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin from casting electoral votes because their procedural changes to respondto COVID 19 “threatened the integrity” of the voting results (Platoff, 2020). The Texas League of United LatinAmerican Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas, and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans filed suitagainst Texas Governor Greg Abbot, claiming that the closing of drop-off locations in Harris and Travis Countydisenfranchised older voters, those with disabilities, and communities of color impacted by Covid 19. In LindaJann Lewis vs. Ruth Hughs, the N.A.A.C.P. challenged several legal impediments to voting:The requirements that voters pay postage on mail-in ballotsThe postmark requirements and receiving deadline for ballots (day after election by 5pm)Requirement that voters submit handwritten samples to verify identity.The voter assistance ban which criminalizes third-party assistance.Finally, Mi Familia Vota and the NAACP filed suit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Secretaryof State Ruth Hughes for safer polling sites. The Court found that exemption 8 of Governor Abbott’s ExecutiveOrder GA-29 which allowed voters and voting site staff an exemption from the mask mandate breached thesecond section of the Voting rights Act. In the ruling the court stated “because it creates a discriminatory burdenon Black and Latino voters. For this reason, exemption 8 is invalid and void.” However, the Court denied theplaintiffs on injunctive relief.

Analysis and summary

This brief is based on an examination of state attempts to further suppress the vote, primarily through a reviewof recent court cases in those eight states where and are close political races, considering the upcoming run-offelection in Georgia. The rulings from the court’s have overwhelmingly denied any claims of widespread voterfraud. However, familiarity with the decisions from the courts isn’t necessary to ecognize the continuing andemerging patterns of voter suppression conjured by Republic political operatives and campaigns. In this case, itis much more important to look at the emerging patterns of behavior by political officials and campaigns. Of the eight states in this study, there were decertification attempts in five. States like Florida, Georgia, and Texasseemed to have much more extensive issues than the other states included. Given the history of blatant andrampant racism in Florida, Georgia, and Texas, this is not surprising.

While there are several ways to disenfranchise the vote of a group of people, in general, only the threefollowing strategies are used: prevent the group of people from legally voting, make voting extremely difficult,and attempt to nullify their vote if these tactics fail. In 2020, attempts to decertify election results in so manystates does not indicate that the first two strategies are not being used, but rather that the first two strategies arenot working as well as expected. One reason that attempts to disenfranchise voters through logistical obstaclesand misinformation tactics may not have their intended impact is widespread access to technology. While politicalcampaigns and media organizations influence public opinion, organizers and independent actors have access totechnology (via social media) that allows them to engage and rally the community more effectively (Anderson,et al. 2020). While this is promising, voting and civil rights organizations must continue to educate and organize.Attempts to disenfranchise and disqualify votes will most likely become more extreme and desperate before theachievement of equity, hence the title of this report, Incarcerating Democracy.

Remedies to voter suppression

Voter suppression is one of greatest threat to American democracy since slavery. The efforts to prevent millionsof Americans from voting is a modern manifestation of the 3/5ths compromise making citizens merely tools forlabor. It is taxation without representation. While the practice of voter disenfranchisement is a formidable threatto authentic citizenship, there are some very practical strategies to counter its impact.

The first step to addressing voting suppression is advocating for the rights of convicted felons. Nearly every statein the United States has a law restricting the rights of certain citizens to vote (Uggen & Fettig, 2020). Labelingcertain populations as criminals has been one of the greatest tactics to limit voter engagement. This act notonly limits political access but ushers in economic, educational, and family instability. Given the United Statesdocumented history of racism and genocide against Black/Indigenous/Latinx People and the fact that thesepopulations suffer disproportionately to imprisonment it is not difficult to concluded that the overpolicing andprosecution of this people is a targeted attempt to limit their representation in government.

The second suggested Strategy for addressing voter suppression is the maintenance and support of organizedlegal teams. Grassroots support for local or national advocacy groups which defend the rights of Black/Indigenous/Latinx rights is absolutely critical. While U.S. legal history has many landmark cases granting rights tooppressed people, legal counter attacks on civil rights victories have been continuous.

Voter education programs will be vital in the efforts to neutralize misinformation. Voter education effortsoperated by local grassroots organizations and/or national civil rights organizations with community ties will bekey in countering misinformation and unnecessary structural barriers to participation. Grassroots organizations must also play a vital role in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts and be a source of information when voting locations and times change. Another key element to countering voter suppression is independent news sources.Because voter disenfranchisement relies heavily on false information or the suppression of information, community ownership of independent news is vital. Social media provides the tools for advocacy groups to distribute counter information on a mass scale. In conclusion, we suggest the following strategies for countering voter suppression:

1. Voting Rights Advocacy for Citizens with Felony Convictions
2. Organized Legal Teams
3. Voter Educations Programs
4. Grassroots GOTV Efforts
5. Independent News Outlets

The first step to making the U.S. a truly representative nation is eliminating the disenfranchisement of felons.Gerrymandering and strict voter identification laws must be eliminated. When states are involved in federal elections, they should abide by universal polling site rules. The solutions for realizing equity in American politics are present, what is wanting is political will. As long as there are laws which allow the government to strip voting rights the United States will remain a Faux democracy.

Author Bio: Ben Yisrael (formerly Stephen A. Sargent) received a Ph.D in Political Science from Texas A&M University in 2009. His research interests include Criminal Justice and Healthcare Policy. He is currently theCoordinator for the Healthy King County Coalition (HKCC) in Seattle, WA.


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Historically, attention to issues of incarceration and unemployment have focused on low-income urban communities. Comparatively little is understood about low-income rural communities. Does long-term incarceration, including for federal crimes, for Federal non-violent crimes impact rural communities in the same manner as urban communities, and do these relationships hold equally for Black and White formerly incarcerated?

Unemployment remains high among released prisoners after servicing their sentences for non-violent crimes. This unemployment contributes to recidivism, community unemployment, and fatherlessness, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage which contributes to future crime. Links between incarceration of non-violent offenses and future unemployment have been demonstrated in samples of former offenders, both at the State and Federal level. The current analysis examines this issue at the State and Congressional District unemployment levels. Proportion of individuals experiencing prison sentences, including for non-violent crimes, is correlated with unemployment at both the Congressional District and State level. This relationship persists regardless of a person’s race/ethnicity or rural/urban location, suggesting prison sentences for non-violent crimes predict unemployment for both urban Black and rural White communities. In conclusion, White-majority rural communities suffer long-term economic and social costs in the same manner as urban Black communities. The long-term impact of incarceration for non-violent crimes increases the chances of unemployment and child poverty.
Section 2 - Introduction and review of previous research
Section 1 - overview

Introduction and Literature Review

The United States has an unusually high prison and incarcerated population in comparison to other industrialized nations. Indeed, the proportion of United States(U.S.) citizens incarcerated or under community supervision is the highest in the world; however, per-capita numbers have fallen in recent years (Pew Research Center, 2021).Ostensibly the focus was on drug and other crimes related to high-crime, low-income, urban neighborhoods with high proportions of non-White minorities. Harsh sentencing was implemented in the 1990’s to deal with both soaring homicide rates and drug epidemics.Though, homicides aside, the U.S. does not experience relatively-high violent crime rates, with assault rates lower than countries such as France, Belgium, the United Kingdom,New Zealand, or Australia (Ferguson & Smith, 2021). One question worth asking is:what impact does imprisonment for non-violent crime have on offenders’ potential for rehabilitation and reintegration into U.S. society upon release, and do experiences for non-White urban communities hold also for White-majority rural environments? That is, given this process is understandably dependent upon employment. In this paper, past research on offender samples will be reviewed before analyzing several unique data sets to examine the impact of long-term imprisonment on employment at the societal level,particularly with an eye on whether patterns that are established for urban non-whiteenvironments hold for White majority rural environments.
Research on Offender Samples
Upon release from prison, reintegration into society is dependent upon seeking employment; however, many employers require background checks for potential employees. Upon discovering a prior history of incarceration - even if for non-violent crimes- such employers generally decline offering employment to former inmates. As a consequence, unemployment rates among former non-violent offenders are far higher than the general populace - hitting rates around 38% or even higher among former inmates without a college degree (Lockwood et al., 2012).

Recognizing this, the federal government, along with many States, Counties, and municipalities, has developed programs for individuals with criminal records and prior experiences with incarceration. These programs generally include work training, work release, vocational trainings, and Ban the Box initiatives. Evidence suggests these programs can be effective in reducing post-release criminal recidivism (Graham et al.,2014). This suggests societal investment in programs that aid offenders in obtaining employment are beneficial for offenders themselves and also society via reduced crime. Furthermore, evidence suggests society experiences down-stream impacts from reduced employment, such as fatherlessness or absentee fathers (Sum et al., 2011).Given present and non-abusive fathers reduce violent behavior among adolescent males in particular (Mackey & Mackey, 2003), investing in programs which increase the prevalence of involved fathers appears to be a clear societal good.
Training for employment is, however, is just one part of the picture. If employers are reluctant to hire returning citizens due to concerns about their honesty, integrity, or reliability, work training can only be so effective. Lack of employment is a critical barrier which former inmates face upon reintegration to society, and employer perceptions of former inmates can be unfavorable, resulting in reluctance to hire (Graffam et al., 2008).Reluctance to hire violent criminals is - not surprisingly - higher for violent criminals than for non-violent criminals. Though, reluctance is observed for both crime-types, particularly for inmates with fewer work qualifications (Cerda et al., 2015). Interestingly, training efforts aimed at employers to reduce stigma and increasing hiring of returning citizens appear only modestly effective (Batastini et al, 2017). As such, evidence suggests so-long as criminal history remains accessible by employers, employers will negatively evaluate potential employees based on this information. This process is understandable at the individual level, yet appears to contribute to negative outcomes at the societal level.
Societal Level Data
Relationships between formerly incarcerated populations and unemployment at the societal level is complex and more data would certainly be welcome in this realm. Some data available at present suggests the experience of former inmates on unemployment can take several forms. Simply, ex-offenders never being hired is one. So-too is the fragility of employment for many returning citizens. That is, ex-offenders are often hired at lower rates than non-offenders, as well as are let-go first during times of economic recession (D’Alessio et al., 2014). Unemployment can then result in increases in crime, particularly for property crimes (Phillips & Land, 2012).
This can lead to tension for the criminal justice system - primarily concerned with reducing crime rates - and increased incarceration, which can be effective in reducing crime. Though, this comes at considerable cost in terms of employment and long-term recidivism (Cappell & Sykes, 1991). This can create tension among policy-makers who, on one hand may wish to be tough on crime - believing leniency may result in increased crime rates - but who also recognize reintegration and rehabilitation are important in preventing recidivism of offenders.One other aspect that has not been examined closely in prior literature is the influence of race and space on incarceration and unemployment. For instance, it is possible that the experiences of Black individuals living in low-income urban environments simply differ from the experiences of White individuals living in low-income rural environments.As such, this research will focus on this perceived race-urban-rural distinction.
The Current Study
As indicated, more data on the societal impacts of space, long-term incarceration for non-violent crimes, and unemployment is desirable. As such, the current study sought to examine these issues using several databases to determine whether incarceration rates predict unemployment at the Congressional District and State level for both urban and rural spaces. Specifically, the current study sought to investigate several research questions:

1. Does prison incarceration predict unemployment at the level of Congressional Districts and States?
2. Does this effect also include relationships with child poverty rates?
3. Do these effects persist when ethnicity is controlled?
4. Do White-majority rural communities experience similar relationships as do better-researched Black-majority urban environments?
Section 3 - Methods
Section 2 - Introduction and review of previous research


Several databases were compiled for examination within the current study. First, a database was developed for a sample of 437 U.S. Counties representing multiple Congressional Districts and States. For this dataset, incarceration trends were obtained from the Vera Institute of Justice (2022). Data on demographics, child poverty rates, and rurality were obtained from the County Health Rankings Dataset (Remington, EtAl, 2015). Finally, data on poverty was obtained from U.S. Census data and data on unemployment from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The second dataset used sentencing and crime data from the United States SentencingCommission (USSC) (United States Sentencing Commission, 2022). This dataset provides state level data on Federal crimes, broken down by violent and non-violent crime types. Demographic information is provided by U.S. Census data and unemployment data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022).
Data Analysis
Data analysis will take-on several types. First, bivariate correlations between main predictor and outcome variables will be provided. Second, multiple regression analyses will be conducted, considering the impact of short-term jail and long-term prison incarceration ,as well as violent crime rate, percentage Black and percentage rural on unemployment and child poverty at the County level. Correlations between poverty and long-term prison incarceration will also be considered for individual Congressional Districts with more than five-counties represented in the dataset. Finally, for the first USSC dataset, correlations between non-violent offending prison sentences and unemployment will be considered, controlling for race.
Section 4 - Results
Section 3 - Methods


Table 1

TABLE 1 illustrates a summary of the school discipline data of the rural southwestern school district according to race/ethnicity, gender, grade level, frequency of suspensions, and economic disadvantage. Table 1 also illustrates the chi-square analysis of each category. The Total Population category in the table illustrates the total number of students enrolled in the academic year 2016 – 2017, according to grade level. Black students have the lowest population in all grade levels. Black students account for 20% of the population, while White students represent 45% and Hispanicstudents 35% of the student population. Despite the low representation of Black students in the total student population, they are disproportionately represented in the student suspension population. To understand school discipline, we calculated the percentages of students in In-School Suspensions (ISS), Out-of-School (OSS) Suspensions, and Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEP). Then we divided those outcomes by their numbers in each respective racial/ethnic group. Doing thisallowed us to observe any racial disparity in school discipline infractions. Unless otherwise noted, all three categories (ISS, OSS, and DAEP) are referred to as suspensions for the remainder of the report.

*Note: Chi-square is significant at .05

Figure 1

Figure 1 illustrates the total number of suspensions relative to the number of students suspended for each racial/ethnic group. Black students had the highest students suspended to total suspensions ratio at 3.3 in the 2016 – 2017 academic year, while the White ratio was 2.3 and the Hispanic students had a 2.2 ratio. It should be noted that the total number of students suspended to total suspensions ratio was 2.8. In short, Black students represent only 20% of the student population, yet they account for the highest number of suspensions (413) and students suspended population (124).
Section 5 - References
Section 4 - Results


Despite the well-documented history and status of racially and ethnically disparate school discipline, there remains a lack of research on the behavioral justifications for the use of school discipline, just as there are many school districts that have yet to identify and properly implement proven approaches. Only a few states like California and Texas are implementing proven approaches like a moratorium on discretionary suspensions. Our results indicate that despite motivation to address school discipline, the way it is expressed is 17 times more likely to be utilized on Black students.

We also found that sixty-three percent (63%) of the students suspended had multiple suspensions within an academic year. As a result, we conclude this report with a few recommendations that will assist school districts interested in reducing disparities, increasing student compliance, and improving the overall schoolcommunity relationship.

Build an Infrastructure for the Collection and Analysis of Schools’ Discipline Data

We recommend the creation of a data collection and analysis portal that would ease the ability to share identified student disciplinary-specific data. Such a system would help school leaders craft a sound blueprint with measurable results for continuously improving schools so there could be more evidence-informed decisions (American Association of School Administrators - AASA, 2004). Similar to the Texas Education Agency’s Discipline Action Group Summary Reports, most state educational databases lack individual-level disciplinary, such as the number of suspensions each kid received in a given year. In order to better determine the necessary steps to address disciplinarychallenges, there is a dire need to be able to determine the degree to which students are disciplined on the individual level. In the San Francisco Unified School District, data was at the core of the district’s efforts to reduce suspensions. They were able to see which schools, classrooms, and teachers were suspending students the most; what interventions specific students received; and how restorative practices have been used to help students (AASA & Children’s Defense Fund, 2014). In order to identify bright spots and challenges, allocate resources effectively, and ensure success for all students, educators need to be able to make data-driven decisions. Data do not necessarily prove that students are being discriminated against, but without data, it is difficult to know if all students are being treated fairly. Best practices may be employed without school or district-specific data, but without data, it will be difficult to know what is working and what needs to be adjusted (AASA & Children’s Defense Fund, 2014).

Form a Community-School Task Force

Utilizing findings from the focus groups in conjunction with external evaluators, we recommend school districts formulate a strategic task force that reports directly to the school board and superintendent. This task force should be charged with examining the school district’s disciplinary policies, practices, and procedures. The overall goal would be to determine the impact of these practices and provide recommendations for reducing unnecessary disciplinary actions and racial/ethnic disparities. In addition to examining district-level data, the task force would be charged with recommending proven disciplinary models for consideration. Each year the task force would submit areport to the school board and superintendent before releasing the report for public consumption.

Similar to approaches in Maryland, Washington, Michigan, and New Jersey, the task force serves as a unique opportunity for community involvement in a pressing educational issue (APA, 2008; Colombi & Osher, 2015; Salmon, 2019). At a minimum, the task force would serve as a real-time oversight evaluator and recommender of disciplinary policies and practices.

Schools that have implemented community-level task forces have been able to increase family engagement and cultivate student learning while at the same time improve attendance, behavior, and development (Duke Law School, 2015). These types of partnerships create a “connected science” in which real-world problems are used as contextual scaffolds for bridging students’ community and evidence-based knowledge as a way to provide opportunities for meaningful and intellectual challenges for students (Bouillion & Gomez, 2001; Gross, 2015)

Enact Moratorium on Discretionary Suspensions

A moratorium should be placed on discretionary suspensions. Our results indicated that 69.25% of all suspensions were for discretionary reasons (i.e., failure to comply, dress code violations, cell phone usage, missed assignments, tardiness, parking issues, false reports, and cheating). Black students account for 57.8% of the suspensions resulting from discretionary reasons above and beyond those experienced by their White (25.4%) and Hispanic (16.8%) counterparts. Black students were over 20 times more likely to receive In-School Suspensions for Verbal Altercations and Stealing compared to theirWhite and Hispanic classmates (see Figure 8). As a result, classroom removals for these behaviors must be weighed against the immediate and long-term impact of suspension. Exclusionary discipline should never be administered for discretionaryinfractions/behaviors. Placing a moratorium on discretionary suspensions would decrease the amount of missed instructional days for students, reduce the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile and/or adult, lessen the probability of dropping out and pursuing a college-level education or seeking a gainful occupation.

A review of the previous research has demonstrated that by placing moratoriums on discretionary suspensions, school districts have been able to significantly reduce their number of suspensions. California, Florida, New York, and Texas have recently banned suspensions of K – 2nd grade students for discretionary reasons such as “willful defiance,” and soon, we will have a chance to determine the program’s impact (Berwick, 2016; Michels et al., 2016). California passed a new bill in September 2019 that placed moratoriums on suspensions from K – 8th grade. This new bill went into effect until July 2020.

In 2015, the Seattle School Board placed a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary grade students. A district-wide plan will also be developed to further reduce out-of-school suspensions for all grades (Cornwell, 2015). Between 2015 – 2017 there has only been a 0.69% reduction in suspensions in the district. Texas has had more luck with the suspension ban on K – 2nd grade with a 30% reduction in suspensions.

Utilize Focus Groups

We highly recommend the implementation and use of focus groups to grapple with the school disciplinary concerns. Focus groups have been a proven method of addressing disparate discipline and safety problems (Ayoub et al., 2020). Discussed below are studies that applied the use of focus groups to implement school discipline reform.

Evanston Township High School in Illinois utilized a focus group to assess disproportionate suspensions for dress code violations. The result of the focus group was a revised and inclusive dress code. The new dress code policy for the school isconcise and allows for a lot of student discretion. The policy lists freedoms, along with restrictions, and includes language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

The first study, “Suspended Students’ Experiences with In-School Suspension: A Phenomenological Investigation,” highlighted the use of focus groups to determine the effectiveness and consequences of exclusionary discipline (Evans, 2011). The study found that participants (middle and high school public school teachers) expressed frustration with administrators’ inconsistent application of suspension and expulsion. It also found that the most reported threat to school safety by teachers was not student violence but rather a “lack of cohesive culture and relationships between staff andstudents.”(Evans, 2011).

The second study, “Translating Research into Effective Practice: The Effects of a Universal Staff and Student Intervention on Key Indicators of School Safety and Discipline,” by the University of Oregon faculty highlighted the use of focus groupsto describe the effects of a universal intervention package aimed at improving the safety and social behavior of students in elementary and middle schools (Sprague et al., 2001). Nine treatment and six comparison (no-intervention) elementary and middle schools in three communities participated. In a focus group interview across some treatment and comparison schools, treatment school personnel generally reported improved operation of their schools and motivation to continue with the intervention. Comparison schools cited the need for school-wide intervention and technical assistance as a top need.

By creating these groups, schools are better able to collect qualitative information that can be used to improve upon the school’s disciplinary approaches. These focus groups must also be used to improve communication and help move the conversation from observation to the solution in real-time. Such an approach could ultimately lead to greater official responses for change and essentially close the racial gap in school disciplinary practices.
Section 6 - Appendices
Section 5 - References


The overrepresentation of minorities in school discipline has remained a constant. Over thecourse of this project, it became apparent that there was a need to understand just why these students were being placed in detention or suspended. Unfortunately, schools do very little to mitigate the underlying motivators for the disproportionate discipline of Black students. What has become apparent is that society has failed to adequately prepare teachers, principals, students, and parents for the reality of discipline in the classroom, which inevitably establishes its own cultural resistance. These undercurrents are major contributing factors to the racial/ethnic disproportionality in school discipline.

At the very least, more work is necessary to raise the individual and collective consciousness of educators, parents, children, and society about the use and impact of school punishment. More focus must be placed on lasting solutions. Along the way, we will keep working hard to disrupt the assumptions and cultural misunderstandings that compel the responses that served as motivation for this research. As such, we hope that this report will be used to empower parents, families, and communities while advising policymakers and educational leaders on the necessary systemic, cultural, and behavioral challenges that often manifest as disciplinary problems. This research, and others like it, bring us one step closer towards dismantling the inequitable use of punishment in our school system and placing a break in the school-to-prison pipeline.
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Section 6 - Implications


American Association of School Administrators - AASA. (2004). Using Data to Improve Schools:
What’s Working. Online. Policy_and_Advocacy/files/Using DataToImproveSchools.pdf

AASA & Children’s Defense Fund. (2014). School Discipline Data. Retrieved from\Allen, Q., & White-Smith, K. A. (2014). “Just as bad as prisons”: The challenge of dismantling the school-toprison pipeline through teacher and community education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 445-460.

Allen, G. (2013). Fla. School District Trying To Curb School-To-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from
codeswitch/2013/11/05/243250817/ fla-school-district-trying-to-curb-schoolto-prison-pipeline

APA (American Psychological Association) Zero Tolerance Task Force. 2008. “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?” American Psychologist 63, 852–62.

Ayoub, L., Jensen, E., Sandwick, T., Kralstein, D., Hahn, J., & White, E. (2020): School Discipline, Safety, and Climate: A Comprehensive Study in New York City. Retrieved from

Berwick, C. (2016). Ban school suspensions! The Week. Retrieved from grants/254578.pdf ban-school-suspensions

Bouillion, L. M., & Gomez, L. M. (2001). Connecting school and community with science learning: Real world problems and school–community partnerships as contextual scaffolds. Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 38(8), 878-898.

Bradshaw, C. P., Waasdorp, T. E., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on child behavior problems. Pediatrics, 130(5), e1136-e1145.

Colombi, G., & Osher, D. (2015). Advancing School Discipline Reform. Retrieved from downloads/report/Advancing-School-Discipline-Reform-Sept-2015.pdf

Cornwell, P. (2015). Seattle School Board Halts Suspensions for Elementary School Students. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from
Section 8 - Mental Health Resource
Section 7 - Recommendations

Apprendix A

Additional Noteworthy School Discipline Studies

Best Practices for Supporting Educators with Discipline (2019)

Realizing the Full Vision of School Discipline Reform: A Framework for Statewide Change (2017)

Instead of suspension: Alternative strategies for effective school discipline (2015)

Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide (2015)

Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement (2011)

Conducting Focus Groups to Develop a Comprehensive School Portrait (2005)

Falling Through the Cracks: Disparities in Out-of-School Suspensions in St. Louis at the Intersection of Race, Disability, and Gender (2019)

Predictors of School Discipline (2018)

School Discipline Data Indicators: A Guide for Districts and Schools (2017)

Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspensions and Expulsions on Black Students in Southern States (2015)
Section 9 - About the Author
Section 8 - Mental Health Resource

About the Author

Sheara Jennings
Sheara Jennings is an Affiliate Fellow with the Center for Justice Research, an Associate Professor at the University of Houston (UH), and the Humana Endowed Chair in Social Determinants of Health with dual appointments in the UH Graduate College of Social Work and the UH College of Medicine. Her research has focused on the well-being of Black and LatinX students and families in the areas of academic achievement, teen pregnancy prevention, healthy marriage/relationships, and community-based interventions. Her research project with the Center for Justice Research examines the mental and emotional health responses of Black people at the intersection of COVID-19 and police misconduct.

In 2020, Dr. Jennings was appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner to serve on the City of Houston Health Equity Response Task Force in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on minority, vulnerable, and under-resourced communities.

Currently, Dr. Jennings is a second term Commissioner for the Council on Social Work Education Commission on Membership and Professional Development, the Social Work Practice Cluster Co-Chair for the Society for Social Work and Research 2022 annual conference; and a member of the Good Life Outcomes Community Engagement Advisory Board which is a policy advocacy initiative of the community-based organization Change Happens, designed to affect change that addresses racial and social injustices.

Dr. Jennings holds a B.S. in rehabilitation psychology for Southern University, A&M; an M.S.W. from Louisiana State University; and a Ph.D. in social intervention research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her professional affiliations include the American Public Health Association, the American Evaluation Association, the Council on Social Work Education, and the Society for Social Work and Research.
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