The Disciplining Effect of Mass Incarceration on Labor Organization


Previous research has described the criminal justice system as a “labor market institution.” In recent years, however, research on the relationship between the criminal justice system and the labor market has focused primarily on the negative impact of criminal justice involvement on an individual’s ability to find work postrelease. This article explores how workers’ exposure to the criminal justice system is related to labor organization—a labor market institution through which workers in the United States have secured benefits for themselves and that, structurally, has mitigated income inequality. Across three analyses, we find a negative relationship between exposure to the criminal justice system and involvement in labor organizations. In a fourth analysis, we find evidence that this relationship results from employers’ increased power over those so exposed. Mass incarceration may discipline low-wage workers by decreasing their likelihood of participating in organizations through which they might gain economic power individually and collectively.

American Journal of Sociology