As people grapple with the economic fallout from COVID-19, there is a growing sense that the economy was not performing well for many, even before the lockdowns. At the end of 2019, amid a theoretically strong economy, income inequality reached an all-time high, and a cavernous wealth gap continues to separate too many white and black families.
These inequalities are found, more than anywhere else, in the criminal justice system – and more particularly in what the system does to families.
We know that people who have been convicted of a crime or imprisoned are more likely to face poverty and other serious challenges. But our Brennan Center report calculates in dollars how criminal convictions position people for a life of reduced income, helping to perpetuate poverty while fueling racial, health and economic inequalities.
Given the large number of people affected by the criminal justice system, this is not an issue we can afford to ignore, especially in times of recession. Any recovery program at federal, state and local levels must also seek to reduce the economic impact of mass incarceration.
Involvement in the criminal justice system – especially time in jail or conviction for a crime – casts a shadow over a person’s life, limiting their ability to earn a living in the short and long term. The effect of prison is particularly pronounced: a 52% reduction in annual earnings and little growth in earnings for the rest of their lives – a loss of $ 500,000 over several decades.
Even a felony conviction – a minor misdemeanor, such as shoplifting – can reduce income by 16% per year. Many people swept away by the criminal justice system are already living on the brink of poverty. The reduced earning potential of a conviction can make the difference between economic stability and inescapable poverty.
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The criminal justice system touches more people, more deeply, than previously thought. More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record. Of these, nearly 8 million were imprisoned. The Brennan Center study, however, is the first to calculate the number of people convicted of a misdemeanor – at least 45 million, or about 14% of the American population.
Due to lower incomes, the total amount of money lost each year by those criminally convicted or who have spent time in prison is at least $ 370 billion. This lost income could be spent on pursuing educational opportunities or buying a first home, which for many families has helped break the cycle of poverty.
These grave consequences are inextricably linked to the country’s 400-year history of racial injustice. Black and Latino men and women make up more than half of all Americans who have been incarcerated. This disparity likely stems from decades of discriminatory policies and overpolishing communities of color.
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And while all of the people who have been in prison face severely reduced incomes, black and Latin Americans are less likely than whites in the same socioeconomic group to see their incomes recover, suggesting that the imprisonment traps them in low-wage jobs. White men and women who have gone to jail lose about $ 270,000 over their lifetime compared to socio-economically similar whites who have not spent any time in jail. For formerly incarcerated Blacks and Latinos, this is almost $ 360,000 and over $ 510,000, respectively, compared to socio-economically similar Blacks and Latinos who have not been in prison.
There are at least three things that policymakers must do to correct these wrongs:
► Offer a real second chance to those who have already gone through the criminal justice system. This requires sealing and clearing old criminal records as well as providing high quality educational opportunities in prison.
►The social safety net has also collapsed in recent decades. This process must be reversed and the exclusions that prevent criminally convicted persons from accessing public housing or other benefits should be reduced or completely repealed. After all, almost everyone who is sent to prison will be released at some point.
►Reduce the number of people who interact in any way with the criminal justice system. Diversion programs that help those accused of lower-ranking crimes avoid conviction have proven to be effective in many places, including New York City, which has seen the number of misdemeanors plummet over the past five years. Investing in alternatives to incarceration, reclassifying certain crimes as misdemeanors and completely removing criminal penalties for certain offenses are other policies that lawmakers must pursue.
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Allowing the economic consequences of a conviction or imprisonment to last a lifetime is a moral failure. For our economy to be truly based on racial and economic justice, the millions of Americans who have passed through the system must be given a real second chance.
Ames Grawert is Senior Counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Terry-Ann Craigie is a Justice Scholar in Economics at the Brennan Center for Justice. They are two co-authors of the Brennan Center report “Conviction, Emprisonment and Lost Earnings”.