As with patterns of urban violence, high incarceration levels are also increasingly
concentrated in a relatively small number of Chicago neighborhoods.66 Similar to the
district-by-district differential in homicide, the rates of incarceration in African-American
communities are at an entirely different magnitude than the rates in
Caucasiancommunities.67 Nationally, if current rates of incarceration hold steady, one in
every three African-American men is projected to be imprisoned at some point in his life,
compared to one in seventeen for Caucasian men.68 This disparity can be even higher
when analyzed at local levels,69 a trend that has great bearing on parent-child
relationships in the most impacted neighborhoods.
Crucially, despite their overlapping concentration, high neighborhood
incarceration rates can only be partially explained by levels of violence and other forms
of crime. In Punishment’s Place, a pioneering article on the place-based expression of
mass incarceration, sociologist Robert Sampson70 found that across Chicago
communities, crime is not a simple predictor of incarceration levels, with high-crime,
high-disadvantage areas having many more times the incarceration rate than that of high-crime, low-disadvantage areas.71 These findings led the authors to argue “communities
that experienced high disadvantage experienced incarceration rates more than three times
higher than communities with a similar crime rate,”72 thereby indicating that
incarceration has become a response to social forces beyond crime, including poverty and
The United States’ globally unparalleled incarceration levels have serious, though
often nuanced, implications for children. As can be predicted by the great disparities in
incarceration levels across urban areas, there are large inequities in children’s daily risk
levels for parental incarceration. New estimates show that the risk of paternal
imprisonment for African-American children is large and has grown tremendously in
recent decades, whereas the risk of paternal imprisonment for Caucasian children remains
66 For data from 2000 to 2011, see Angela Caputo, Cell Blocks, CHI. REP. (Mar. 1, 2013),
http://www.chicagoreporter.com/cell-blocks#.U1WYPfldVlw. For incarceration data from 1990 to 2005,
see Sampson & Loeffler, supra note 65 (noting that in Chicago’s low-incarceration areas, “the
incarceration rate ranges from nearly zero to less than 500 per 100,000 adult residents. By contrast, there is
a dense and spatially contiguous cluster of areas in near-west and south-central Chicago that have rates of
incarceration some eight times higher (or more)”).
67 SAMPSON, supra note 17, at 113.
68 THE SENTENCING PROJECT, REPORT OF THE SENTENCING PROJECT TO THE UNITED NATIONS HUMAN
RIGHTS COMMITTEE REGARDING RACIAL DISPARITIES IN THE UNITED STATES CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM 1
(2013), available at
69In Chicago, fifty-five percent of African-American men are labeled felons for life. DRUG POLICY
ALLIANCE, DRUG COURTS ARE NOT THE ANSWER: TOWARD A HEALTH-CENTERED APPROACH TO DRUG
USE 8 (2011).
70 Robert Sampson is a member of the research team for the project on Human Development in Chicago
Neighborhoods. See About PHDCN, PROJECT ON HUMAN DEVELOPMENT IN CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOODS,
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/PHDCN/about.jsp#research (last visited May 14, 2014).
71 Sampson & Loeffler, supra note 65, at 20, 27.