Justice and Politics

Carceral Contact & Participation

Brandon R. Davis
Published in
4 min readJul 30, 2020


Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

Feeling Politics

Well-Being, Carceral Contact, and Participation

How do criminal justice interactions affect political participation and through what mechanisms?

In this new era of criminal justice expansion, the number of people who have had interactions and who will interact with the criminal justice system has increased significantly. Notwithstanding the abundant scholarship detailing the expansion of the carceral state, the subsequent increases in carceral contact, and the negative externalities of punitivity, we know little about the mechanisms that drive the observed negative political consequences.

We know what is happening but not how it is happening.

The problem arises from a lack of data concerned with carceral contact and the contacted populations’ participatory behavior and attitudes. Current literature details the negative effects of carceral contact on political participation and well-being; however, we do not know if the effects are happening simultaneously or are path dependent.

Specifically, does carceral contact adversely affect both individual well-being and political participation at the same time? Or does the former — well-being (highly correlated with political participation) — mediate the reductions in participation caused by carceral contact?

I argue that criminal justice policies, more so than others, convey to citizens their rights and privileges. A policy feedback approach views (criminal justice) policies as independent variables with effects on political outcomes. Policy feedback refers to the process through which once enacted, public policies restructure subsequent political process.

There are two types of policy feedback effects.

Resource effects focus on how the resources and benefits that policies provide shape patterns of behavior. However, contact with the criminal justice system is associated with resource extraction. The extraction of economic resources and the extraction of human capital are both forms of punishment. I argue that resource extractive policies convey embedded messages about the role, place, and worth of those punished.

Interpretive effects are how policies convey (the above) meaning and information to citizens. The goals of criminal justice policies are to identify and punish deviants and deter deviant behavior. Public policies targeted at deviants (i.e. criminal justice polices) do not convey resources and benefits — only burdens. Nevertheless, resource effects have both a direct (negative) effect on participation as well as an indirect negative effect through the effect of these negative resource effects on the interpretative effects. Consequently, criminal justice polices produce interpretive policy feedback effects by means of deviant social construction, resource extraction, and the application of burdens.

I argue that direct and network contact with the criminal justice system has a negative interpretative feedback effect on well-being, which is a mechanism that mediates the decreases in political engagement. Specifically, carceral contact negatively impacts individuals’ perceptions of their role, place, and worth within society, this adversely impacts well-being, and is in part, how the negative political outcomes are produced.

This is important because (1) feelings of well-being are correlated with political participation and (2) this inattention has created a gap in our understanding of participatory behavior in the age of criminal justice expansion. I posit that having even network contact with the criminal justice system produces stress which compromises one’s well-being and thereby decreases the likelihood of political participation.

My analyses show that measures of well-being are significant predictors of participatory behavior. I find that measures of cognitive well-being are strongly associated with participatory behavior. The marginal effects are similar to that of, if not greater than, the effects of race, income, geographic location, and age.

This has important implications for understanding how criminal justice policies are shaping American mass politics.

The second and arguably the most important finding was to identify the direct and indirect effects of carceral contact on measures of participatory behavior mediated through measures of well-being. I find that twenty-three percent of the political suppression effect produced by carceral contact is an indirect effect of carceral contact mediated through measures of well-being. My results strongly suggest that the causal arrow points in my hypothesized direction — carceral contact adversely affects feelings of well-being and thereby subsequent political participation. My results have important implications for the study of policy feedback, public policy, law and society, American politics, and political participation.

Nevertheless, if the net effect of carceral contact is a reduction in participation, then certain groups of citizens — namely the poor and people of color — are more likely to be excluded from the democratic processes and from influencing political outcomes creating inequalities of representation. This has serious implications for these communities.

For example, Ferguson, Missouri is seventy percent black and has been for over fifteen years. Yet, prior to the protest following the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, the mayor, the entire court system, fifty of the fifty-four police officers, and five of six city council members were white. In March 2015, Ferguson held municipal elections and had a record turnout, at three times the rate of its last municipal election. Ferguson voters elected two additional black city council members bringing the total to three. I argue that Ferguson is a prime example of the dangers of predaceous criminal justice polices.

The evidence suggest that the predacious application of criminal justice polices can lead to the de jure and de facto disenfranchisement of a target group, even if that group of people is the numerical super majority. For over fifteen years, fifty cops and a small number of elected and appointed officials were able to decrease black participation to a level where political power could be effectively consolidated into the hands of a white minority. A better understanding of how criminal justice polices determine participatory behavior would be a significant contribution to the study of criminal justice, American politics, race and ethnic politics, public policy, and political participation.

Because, as Charles Mills argues, beyond the declaration of the existence of white supremacy it must be demonstrated and the mechanisms through which it operates and reproduces itself detailed.



Brandon R. Davis

Brandon is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and The Murphy Institute at Tulane University