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New Study Documents Lower Pre-arrest Incomes for Prisoners

A study released last year, prepared by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), documented what most criminal justice experts have long suspected – that offenders’ pre-arrest incomes are significantly lower than the incomes of people who are not incarcerated. Interestingly, the research did not require a new statistical study; it utilized data collected by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) for other reports.

“All too often in criminal justice, the data we need doesn’t exist, but here the data was hiding in plain sight. The federal government collects the pre-incarceration incomes of incarcerated people in a periodic survey, but this data wasn’t being used,” said PPI senior policy analyst Bernadette Raduy.

The PPI report found that poverty clearly plays a role in who gets arrested, which raises corollary questions regarding the exploitation of prisoners – such as excessive prison and jail phone rates, and high bond amounts for minor charges. In short, the criminal justice system imposes fees and costs on those who are least able to afford them.

According to the study, “in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.” For men in all racial groups, the average income was $41,250 for the non-incarcerated versus $19,650 in pre-arrest income for prisoners. The income differential was greater for incarcerated versus non-incarcerated white men.

However, the circumstances for women are no less disturbing: “Incarcerated women are concentrated at the lowest end of the national income distribution [and the] median incarcerated woman had a pre-incarceration income that is 58% that of the median non-incarcerated woman.” The average income for non-incarcerated women was $23,745 compared to $13,890 in pre-arrest income for prisoners.

The report noted there have been several recent studies regarding the relationship between poverty and incarceration, including “The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City,” which found that “the home communities of people imprisoned in Maryland’s state prisons are places that experience disproportionate unemployment, greater reliance on public assistance, higher rates of school absence, higher rates of vacant and abandoned housing, and more addiction challenges.”

PPI cautioned readers from drawing the conclusion “that incarceration causes poverty” – although, judging from the fact that most prisoners had low incomes prior to their incarceration, the opposite may very well be true. While the PPI report used statistics from 2004, more recent data being collected by the BJS is expected to show similar results.

Sources: “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned,” Prison Policy Initiative (July 9, 2015);

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