Prison and Poverty
The incarcerated population of the United States has reached over 2.3 million, making the U.S. incarceration rate the highest in the world, housing more inmates than the top 30 European nations combined.  Mass incarceration strategies were put in place, in part, to reduce crime in poor neighborhoods, but decades after their initial implementation, individuals and communities continue to suffer.

Researchers attribute some of the large increases in prison populations to longer mandatory sentencing.  Going hand in hand with longer sentencing is the fact that the incarcerated population is disproportionately concentrated among young minority men with very low levels of education.   For instance, black men experience 20% longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes.

When people are in their twenties and are locked up for 10 to 15 years, they not only adapt to the extreme culture of prison, but when they exit, they will find it hard to assimilate into normal society.  Moreover, the slim job prospects many people faced before going into jail are worsened upon release.

Sociologists have found that once one takes into account the various socioeconomic factors, incarceration typically reduces annual earnings by 40% for the former average male prisoner.  This does not include wages lost while behind bars or the burdens endured by the prisoner’s family and community during the stint.

Prison has such a debilitating impact on the U.S. that taxpayers end up spending over $50 billion annually on maintaining the system of incarceration.  Without the significant incarceration efforts made by the U.S. government, researchers calculate that the nation’s poverty rate would be 20% below the current level, equaling to roughly 9 million people who would be less reliant on subsidies and assistance programs.  These same people would add to the tax base and make up potential consumers of American products.

Furthermore, slightly under half of federal prisoners are in jail for drug crimes and nearly half of all prisoners in state prisons are there for non-violent offenses.  As a result, the Obama administration has recognized the moral and economic need to curb prison populations.  In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced policies that would increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration while expanding another program which releases inmates who committed non-violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.

The experiment of mass incarceration in the name of public safety has been a clear detriment to American society.  Rather than throw away money and effort to a system that perpetuates unemployment, poor health, family instability and other conditions of poverty, the U.S. must focus on social policies that improve opportunities for those on the lower pegs of the socioeconomic ladder.

– Sunny Bhatt

Sources: New York Times, National Public Radio, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Photo: Barnard.edu