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Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration

According to the report, “Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings: How Involvement with the Criminal Justice System Deepens Inequality,” even a misdemeanor conviction carries consequences. Conditions are worse for citizens with felony convictions, even if they avoid incarceration. And those convicted of a felony who are incarcerated suffer the worst discrimination, though it follows people in all three of these categories to their graves.

The study identifies one of the leading factors behind these discriminatory practices as mass incarceration, which it traces to the 1980s, when wages also “began to stagnate and the [nation’s] social safety net began to be rolled back.” It was also during this period that then-President Ronald Reagan declared the “war on drugs” now deemed ultimately unsuccessful.

Since then, there has been over a fourfold increase in the number of imprisoned American citizens. Durin the decades since, Prison Legal News has reported on the many privations criminal convicts suffer after being released from confinement, especially in employment and housing.

The study quantifies this, demonstrating a markedly smaller earning power that is “a perpetual drag” on the economic potential of those with criminal records, impacting their families and communities as well.  Using government statistics dating back to 1965, the study’s authors estimated the size of three groups in 2017:

• 7.73 million citizens imprisoned for a felony;

• 12.1 million citizens convicted of a felony but never imprisoned; and

• 45 million citizens convicted of at least a single misdemeanor without imprisonment.

The total — 64.8 million people — is equal to more than 28.5 percent of the country’s current adult population. That means roughly two out of seven of the 227.1 million Americans age 18 or older has a criminal record.

Average 2017 salaries for the three groups were then calculated and found to be significantly lower than earnings for peers with similar qualifications.

• Misdemeanor offenders averaged $26,900, about 16 percent below their peers with no criminal record, who brought in $32,000;

• Felons who were never incarcerated fared worse, averaging $23,000, or about 21.8 percent less than the $29,400 paid to similarly qualified non-felons; and

• Formerly imprisoned felons suffered worst of all, averaging just $6,700 for the year, less than half the $13,800 earned by those with comparable qualifications who had never been imprisoned.

Multiplying these shortfalls by the number of people in each group, the study calculated $372.3 billion in lost economic potential annually — a number that dwarfs the $270 billion taxpayers spend every year to fund the country’s criminal justice system.

As the study further demonstrates, there are “system-wide drivers” of discrimination behind these “macroeconomic consequences,” one of the biggest being racial disparities. About 35 percent of the formerly incarcerated population is Black, a ratio far higher than the 13.4 percent of the total population that is Black. Similarly, Latinos represent almost 30 percent of those who have spent time in prison but just over 18 percent of the population at large.

Even for those with criminal records — all of whom suffer income discrimination — there are additional racial disparities, too. Formerly imprisoned Whites face a loss of $267,000 over the course of their remaining work lives, while their counterparts who are Black lose $358,900 and those who are Latino lose $511,500.

Housing is another major problem for all three groups. Government-subsidized housing often excludes tenants with a criminal history, which can result in the separation of families and homelessness. Food assistance programs, which are mostly funded and administered by government, are routinely denied to citizens with a criminal past, especially if their convictions involved drugs.

As the study concludes, “the repercussions of even a relatively minor criminal record represent a serious drain on earnings.” As a result, it says that “top-to-bottom reform is necessary to blunt this effect.” To this end, it makes several policy recommendations:

• Creating aggressive arrest and pre-trial diversion programs, with social workers riding along with police when needed;

• Enacting penalty reductions, reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors and decriminalizing altogether some offenses, such as possession of small quantities of marijuana;

• Banning employers from asking about criminal history with a simple check box on job applications — and after these “ban the box” efforts succeed, as they have in several states — limiting all inquiries and answers about criminal history to the job interview itself;

• Easing the many licensing restrictions imposed on convicts that limit and deny them employment;

• Abolishing public housing guidelines that exclude convicts from eligibility.

In addition, the study encourages federal, state and local governments to enact laws preventing landlords and property management agencies from engaging in housing discrimination against convicts. They also should ensure that all convicts, whether on probation or parole, receive nutrition assistance and help in obtaining enrollment in a health-care program. 


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