Alternative Social Control: Incarceration and Public Assistance Spending in the State of California, 1995-2015

Max Lisch: Undergraduate Research


I am primarily interest in the alternative forms of control that the State utilizes to manage marginal populations. The criminal legal system is often though of as the vehicle for achieving state control, but this conceptualization is unnecessarily limiting. Other state functions provide key forms of control that shape the world around us. The prison boom of the 1990s and the subsequent re-evaluation of the use of mass incarceration has prompted an increased need for the study of these alternative forms. I argue that public assistance (welfare programs and social services) represents an alternative form of state control and is important for understanding the utilization of jails and prisons. By drawing a link between public assistance programs and incarceration, I highlight the way in which marginalized populations are shuffled between different forms of state control.

Jails and prisons exist in an ecosystem of state programs that interact and influence each other. In order to understand the role of incarceration in society, it is necessary to consider welfare as one of these interactions. My research explores the relationship between them; I ask:

“​​In what ways, if any, does the utilization of incarceration have an effect on public assistance spending? Can changes in public assistance spending be mapped onto changes in the rate of incarceration?”

In order to accomplish this, I have collected data on California counties from 1995-2015 and constructed a regression model to compare the utilization of welfare spending and the incarceration rate in these counties over time. Results suggest that there is a significant positive relationship between incarceration and welfare. I argue that this relationship is the combined effects of collateral consequences and a shift in policy towards the diversification of state control mechanisms. Incarceration produces additional welfare needs through the collateral consequences of parental incarceration. The allocation of funds to country assistance programs allows the realization of these needs through county welfare spending. The potential implications of this research include concrete policy choices about funding allocation, and theoretical implications that further the sociological understanding of the role of different forms of state control.