How Mass Incarceration Fuels Cycle of Poverty

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The burden of lost economic opportunity falls hardest on Black and Hispanic individuals who are disproportionately represented in the justice-involved population, according to a study of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

The stiff barriers to employment and housing after prison exacerbate a “racial wealth gap,” concluded the authors, after an analysis linking the amount of time spent behind bars to lost economic opportunities.

Despite making “significant progress” towards addressing and reducing the scale of mass incarceration, New York state still struggles with a carceral system that creates lifetime economic issues for formerly incarcerated individuals, the authors of the report said.

The authors, Ames Grawert, Cameron Kimble and Jackie Fielding noted that Black and Latinx New Yorkers, who make up the largest contingent of the formerly imprisoned population, bear the heaviest burden of economic losses.

They argued that closing the racial wealth gap requires additional emphasis on both diverting individuals from the justice system and expanding economic opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.

The imbalance between the money spent on mass incarceration and funds for social services underlined the authors’ assessment.

In 2019, between policing, jails, prisons, probation, and parole, New York State as a whole spent $18.2 billion on the carceral system, according to a new report by the Center for Community Alternatives.

To put this into contrasting perspective, New York also spent just $6.2 billion that year on mental health services, public health, youth programs and services, recreation, and elder services, the Brennan Center report said.

“This is no accident or aberration,” Wes Moore, former CEO of Robin Hood, an anti-poverty organization, writes in the forward of the report. “Budgets are not impartial or apolitical documents; they are reflections of who and what we value as a society.”

As a result of this disparity, the Brennan Center for Justice’s analysis found that 337,000 New Yorkers have spent time in prison at some point in their lives — translating to 2 percent of the state’s population.

The formerly incarcerated are later less likely to have access to the opportunities that could provide economic stability — such as stable employment and housing— resulting in an estimated $1.9 billion in reduced earnings annually.

“The ramifications are dire,” the authors said.

In New York, individuals with a criminal record face more than 100 employment bars and professional licensing restrictions. Research indicates that a record of conviction record also reduces the likelihood of an employment callback by 50 percent.

The formerly incarcerated also face difficulties securing housing, making them more than 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population.

Moreover, the burden falls disproportionately on people of color: researchers noted that three-quarters of the state’s formerly incarcerated population is Black (145,800) or Latinx (104,600), stifling their opportunity to better themselves.

“Any criminal justice agenda, then, must aim to improve opportunity among those already impacted by racially disparate over-policing and overimprisonment practices of past decades,” said the report.

Policy Recommendations

Reducing the number of New Yorkers who interact with the justice system is a key first step, the report said. Lawmakers should ensure that anyone who is in jail or prison should spend less time incarcerated overall, while opening new opportunities for those already impacted by the justice system.

Other, more specific policy recommendations include:

      • Decreasing the number of people involved in the justice system by legalizing and regulating marijuana, and increasing access to pre-arraignment diversion;
      • Reevaluating excessive sentences by streamlining parole and restructuring sentencing procedures; and,
      • Helping the formerly incarcerated reintegrate through expanding prison education programs, sealing criminal records and removing housing barriers.

The authors acknowledge change is slowly taking place.

New York State has passed significant reforms related to evidence discovery at trial, and elimination of money bail for individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes. The Less Is More Act prevents thousands of reincarcerations for technical parole violations, like being late for curfew.

But these are only preliminary steps to ensure the formerly incarcerated are not condemned to a lifetime of poverty, the authors said.

“Building a fairer, more effective criminal justice system can go hand in hand with fiscal discipline, saving the state money in the short term and reducing poverty and racial disparities in the long term,” the authors conclude.

“Economic and racial justice must be the foundations of any recovery, making the time for action now.”

The authors of the report are:

Ames Grawert, senior counsel and John L. Neu Justice Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. He leads the program’s quantitative research team, focusing on trends in crime and policing and the collateral costs of mass incarceration.

Cameron Kimble, a research and program associate in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, where, as a member of the program’s law and economics research team, he works to end mass incarceration and researches the relationship between mass incarceration, wages, and economic inequality.

Jackie Fielding, Robina Public Interest Scholar Fellow and Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School where she worked for the Minnesota Law Review and the school’s Criminal Defense Clinic.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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