Race and Justice in the Contemporary South

Project Team

Drawing on the research of Donald Matthews and James Prothro, whose work assessed the political landscape and racial attitudes of the American South in the mid-twentieth century, this team set out to study the role of race in the region today, including the political effects of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. In their poster, they present three findings relating specifically to criminal justice and politics in the United States.

In order to examine the political landscape and racial attitudes of the contemporary South, the team collected and analyzed data aimed at uncovering the answers to three distinct questions:

  1. What effects did BLM protests have on prosecutorial elections?
  2. Is prison construction driven by surplus labor and surplus land?
  3. Did the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion reduce prison and jail admissions

First, comparing BLM protest activity data between 2014 and 2016 and prosecutorial elections data for one full cycle (2013 through 2017), they found that Democrat prosecutorial primary elections became more competitive and contested following BLM protests in a given prosecutorial district, while Republican prosecutorial primaries became less so. BLM protests were also associated with better Democrat district attorney and worse Republican district attorney performance in general elections. They interpret these findings to suggest that BLM protests do affect prosecutorial elections by moving district attorney elections generally to the left, but may also make Republicans more unified in support of candidates.

Second, they found evidence that in the southern United States, rural counties with rising poverty rates are most likely to open new prisons. Because prisons can employ people and use otherwise surplus, non-profitable land, the team hypothesized that poor and rural counties would have incentive to do so. Using data from 1990-2010, they found that rural Southern counties were indeed more likely to open prisons, and those with growing poverty rates were even more so.

Finally, the team showed that the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) 2014 Medicaid expansion did not reduce prison or jail admissions within expansion states. While these results differed from their hypothesis, they believe it is likely that the ACA expansion would more likely impact recidivism rates rather than general incarceration due to the health issues exacerbated by time in prisons. Another possibility is that the process for accessing Medicaid may have barriers greater than income that prevent high-risk individuals from accessing it, including technological issues and lacking proof of identity.

How Criminal Justice Shapes Politics and Policy

Poster by Dr. John Aldrich, Dr. Candis Watts-Smith, Arvind Krishnamurthy, Marianna Barrett, Wyatt Bui, Kaya Caouki, Rohan Gupta, David Gust, Annie Han, Ben Keschner, Satya Khurana, Amiya Mehrotra, Mal Narula, Julia Nasco, Alisha Nayak, Emma Shokeir, Nellie Sun, Hanna Tawasha

Project poster.