Flash Interview with Becky Pettit about her Research on how and why the Prison Population Often Goes Unenumerated

The December 2009 Flash highlighted UW Sociologist Becky Pettit's work on "Enumerating Inequality:  The Constitution, the Census Bureau, and the Criminal Justice System."

WCPC: How did you become interested in studying the ways that social and economic indicators exclude current and former inmates?

BP: This project really began with my dissertation research studying the consequences of moving for children in low-income families. I was doing fieldwork in Los Angeles interviewing women living in housing projects or receiving Section 8 vouchers. Nearly all of them had a partner in prison/jail. I got back to Princeton and got talking with Bruce Western about related issues and we decided to do a couple of papers together. My current project builds on my early work with Bruce.

Almost all of my work is somehow concerned with measurement issues and the identification of effects. I've become fascinated by how social marginality leads to exclusion from research (especially quantitatively-oriented research). It turns out that it is surprisingly difficult to figure out the economic and health status of inmates (and former inmates). Fundamentally, I'm interested in documenting how little (or how much) we know.

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

BP: I find it absolutely stunning that young, black, male dropouts are more likely to be in prison or jail on any given day than to be working. This flies in the face of all the accounts of trends in economic well-being (at least throughout the early 2000s).

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

BP: This work raises interesting questions about why social marginality is so tightly coupled with exclusion from quantitative research. It also raises questions about whether and how we might -- collectively -- do a better job incorporating the experiences of socially marginal groups into quantitative analysis. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about how to collect data and how to analyze it.

WCPC: What implications does this work have for policymakers?

BP: There are two types of policy implications of this work. The first centers on why we do such a bad job collecting data on socially marginal populations. While in the 1930s, the exclusion of institutionalized populations may not have been consequential for accounts of American life, today that decision about sampling frame profoundly structures what we can learn about American life. Policymakers need to consider both the intended -- and unintended -- consequences of seemingly trivial decisions around sampling, surveying, data collection, etc.

The second policy implication is directly related to the criminal justice system itself. There is widespread agreement that the criminal justice system has not only grown beyond its capacity, but has also grown beyond what is commonly considered 'cost effective'. However, where to go from here is an incredibly thorny political process. My role, as a researcher, is to provide policymakers and the public with the data they need to make informed decisions. In my work I emphasize that America's prisons and jails -- now more than ever in recorded history -- have become a key feature in the American stratification hierarchy. Inmates -- and former inmates -- are disproportionately male, black, and low-skill. The concentration of incarceration in disadvantaged groups is alarming. It may, therefore, be particularly effective to think about how divesting in prisons (and I don't mean just cutting funds) coupled with investments in education, employment, and social mobility may help reduce the prison population.