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Brookings Institute Study Finds Direct Connection between Poverty and Crime Rates

by Derek Gilna

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, has published a study that demonstrates, through empirical data, what many have long suspected: That extreme poverty leads to increased crime rates. The same study, “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration,” published on March 14, 2018, also confirms that a criminal record “imposes impediments to employment” despite tax incentives for businesses that hire former prisoners.

Most criminal justice experts contend that “successful reintegration requires employment and economic opportunities,” and that high recidivism rates are often caused by lack of meaningful employment. Since 2012, the federal Bureau of Prisons and state prison directors were tasked with providing incarceration data and identifying information for prisoners to the Internal Revenue Service – a process that accumulated data on 2.9 million prisoners, making an analysis of post-incarceration employment possible.

However, the Brookings report focused not only on the challenges faced by reintegrating former prisoners, but also on policies that might improve the lives of young children and keep them off the criminal justice treadmill.

According to the study, for individuals living in lower-income areas, “Three years prior to incarceration, only 49 percent of prime-age men are employed, and, when employed, their median earnings were only $6,250. Only 13 percent earned more than $15,000. Tracking prisoners over time and comparing employment and earnings before and after incarceration we find surprisingly little difference in labor market outcomes like employment and earnings.”

Further, Brookings noted that “In the first full calendar year after their release, only 55 percent of those previously incarcerated have any reported earnings and the median earnings of those that do are just above $10,000.”

Thus, the authors concluded, the pattern of unemployment or under-employment begins before people are convicted of crimes and, in fact, “incarceration has little effect on employment but [is] rather ... an indication that the challenges ex-prisoners face in the labor market start well before the period of incarceration.”

Indeed, according to the study, boys who grew up in families within the bottom 10 percent of income distribution were 20 times more likely to be incarcerated by their early 30s than those who lived in families with the highest income level.

The Brookings’ data showed that, “In almost all states, between 40 and 50 percent of the prison population grew up in families in the bottom quintile [20 percent] of the income distribution.” Additionally, it found that “Neighborhoods and social inclusion matter to incarceration and labor market outcomes. Prisoners are also disproportionately likely to have grown up in socially isolated and segregated neighborhoods with high rates of child poverty and in predominantly African-American or American Indian neighborhoods.”

One ZIP code in Nashville, Tennessee – 37208, one of the poorest areas in the country and 93 percent African-American – has a staggering incarceration rate of 14 percent. The study reported that the highest rates of incarceration “are concentrated in urban centers and certain rural areas, like American Indian reservations,” whereas in other, more prosperous neighborhoods the crime rate is “essentially zero.”

The study concluded by noting the important role of tax credits provided to businesses that hire ex-offenders as a way to improve their employability (the Work Opportunity Tax Credit), but added, “the poor labor market outcomes we see prior to incarceration, as well as the strong relationship between childhood conditions and later incarceration, suggests that there are other barriers to employment beyond incarceration. Policies focused earlier in life that increase childhood investments, reduce discrimination, reform criminal justice practices, or target economic distress in specific neighborhoods may be more effective tools for both reducing future incarceration rates and by aiding reentry following release.” 


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