This page details some of my ongoing research. Please see my CV for additional information about past publications and research in progress. Please also feel free to contact me with any questions about my work!

Crime and punishment

Christopher Muller and Alexander F. Roehrkasse. 2021. "Racial and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration in the Early Twenty-First Century." IRLE Working Paper #109-20.

The relative importance of racial and class inequality in incarceration in the United States has recently become the subject of much debate. In this paper, we seek to give this debate a stronger empirical foundation. First, we update previous research on racial and class inequality in people’s likelihood of being imprisoned. Then we examine racial and class inequality in people’s risk of having a family member imprisoned or living in a high-imprisonment neighborhood. We find that racial inequality in prison admissions has fallen in the twenty-first century, while class inequality has surged. However, in recent years, Black people with high levels of education and income were more likely than White people with low levels of education and income to experience the imprisonment of a family member or to live in a neighborhood with a high imprisonment rate. These seemingly contradictory conclusions can be reconciled by the fact that class boundaries among Black people are more permeable than they are among White people. Imprisonment in the United States is increasingly reserved for the poor. But because Black people are disproportionately connected to the poor through their families and neighborhoods, racial inequality exceeds class inequality in people’s indirect experiences with imprisonment.

Alexander F. Roehrkasse and Christopher Muller. "Hyperincarceration and Missing Men."

The scale and social concentration of incarceration in the United States are so extreme that they have dramatically reduced the number of males, particularly young Black males, in the noninstitutionalized population. But national statistics on incarceration obscure significant variation at the local level, where the consequences of missing men are most keenly felt. Using restricted-access administrative data to geolocate sentenced state prisoners, this research note reports sex ratios for different ethnoracial groups at the county level in 2010, excluding and including imprisoned people. The median Black female aged 25–44 lived in a county where 24.8 Black males per 100 females were missing from the household population, 5.2 of them due to imprisonment. In contrast, for the median White non-Hispanic female, 6.9 White non-Hispanic males were missing, 0.8 due to imprisonment. Sex-ratio distortions resulting from imprisonment were larger for Black females at the 10th percentile than for White non-Hispanic females at the 90th percentile. Because sex ratios have significant consequences in marriage and labor markets, these findings highlight an important demographic mechanism through which hyperincarceration produces inequality in U.S. family and economic life.

Alexander F. Roehrkasse. "Market Development, State Formation, and the Historical Abolition of the Debtors' Prison."

In the late-eighteenth century, lenders’ right to imprison borrowers for defaulting on debts was taken for granted. By the mid-nineteenth century, this power was widely and permanently revoked. Using archival evidence from New York State, the first Western jurisdiction to permanently abolish imprisonment for debt, this study explains the historical demise of the debtors’ prison. Tracing seven decades of contestation over moral aspects of credit exchange and incarceration, it shows that the development of capitalist markets, including their cultural and technological consequences, was necessary but not sufficient to render the debtor’s prison obsolete. Rather, the development of a liberal polity and a penal state institutionalized new moral views about the use of force in economic exchange, consolidating the legitimacy of bodily detention around the punishment of crimes rather than the coercion of private agreements. The analysis has implications for theories of states, markets, and violence, as well as for recent trends in debt collection and penal debt.

Child welfare

Alexander F. Roehrkasse. Forthcoming. "Long-Term Trends and Ethnoracial Inequality in U.S. Foster Care: A Research Note." Demography.

This study combines and standardizes multiple sources of administrative data to calculate rates of children in foster care in the United States from 1961 to 2018, more than tripling the length of previously available time series. Results yield novel insights about historical, geographic, and ethnoracial variation in children's experience of living without parents under state supervision. National rates of children in foster care rose from 3 per 1,000 in 1963 to a peak of almost 8 per 1,000 in 1997 before declining to just under 6 per 1,000 in 2018. After stable or increasing racial inequality in the late-twentieth century, disparities between Black/African American and White children began to decrease in the twenty-first century in nearly every state, closing entirely in several Southern states but remaining wide outside the South. In many Midwestern and Western states, the extreme over-representation of American Indian/Alaska Native children in foster care persisted or intensified.

Alexander F. Roehrkasse. "Race, Poverty, and U.S. Children's Exposure to Neighborhood Incarceration."

Recent research has documented negative associations between children's welfare and mobility and their exposure to neighborhood incarceration. But inequality in such exposure among children in the United States is poorly understood. This study links tract-level census data to administrative data on prison admissions to estimate 34 million children's exposure to neighborhood incarceration in 2008, by race/ethnicity and poverty status. Poor Black children were nearly twice as likely as Black children with family incomes at or above the poverty line to live in the 10% of neighborhoods with the highest imprisonment rates, and four times likelier than poor White non-Hispanic children. Residential segregation and the spatial concentration of incarceration combine to create significant ethnoracial and economic inequality in the neighborhood experiences of U.S. children.

Family law and gender inequality

Alexander F. Roehrkasse. "Women's Property Rights and Divorce: Independence or Deinstitutionalization?"

Standard sociological and economic theories of marriage hypothesize that wives' economic autonomy from husbands increases rates of marital dissolution by decreasing the financial costs of divorce for women. This model has been widely used to explain the historical growth of divorce in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This study reassesses such explanations by exploiting a natural experiment: the expansion of women's property rights in the United States between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Using novel administrative data measuring divorce among marriage cohorts, a comparison of results from differences-in-differences and regression discontinuity designs reveals that prior research has mismeasured the causal mechanism linking women's property rights and marital dissolution. Although divorce rates accelerated following rights reforms, increases were shared equally among those whose marriages were and were not legally affected, ruling out explanations based on the effect of financial transfers from husbands to wives. The influence of wives' property rights gains on marital dissolution is better understood as a cultural spillover effect that was part of the broader deinstitutionalization of patriarchal marriage.