Arguably, the most important transformation in American society over the past 25 years been the increasing use of the police power of the state against American citizens.
Since 1980, criminal justice expenditures and supervision at all levels of government have quadrupled, despite the fact that violent crime rates have declined steadily since the early 1990s and are lower today than in 1980. Perhaps the most striking component of this transformation is the growth of the correctional population: the number of people under correctional supervision grew to 7 million people in 2004, including 4.9 million people currently on probation or parole.
It is obvious from this data that criminal justice policy is affecting the lives of an increasing number of Americans. However, political scientists thus far have failed to theorize sufficiently about the effects of this phenomenon on politics. This is surprising in light of the fact that, at least in terms of redistributive policies, “[i]ncreasing government activity made it harder to deny that public policies were not only outputs of but important inputs into the political process, often dramatically reshaping social, economic, and political conditions” (Pierson, 595).
This paper assesses the effects of the growing number of felony convictions in the United States (more than one million per year) on political participation by studying the impact of convictions on voter registration and turnout in North Carolina. The study also suggests a model of how crime policies affect participation that encompasses the effects of legal disenfranchisement along with other mechanisms which may suppress participation.
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