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Report: Inmates struggle financially after release

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

A new report released by the Pew Charitable Trust details the staggering economic inequities faced by former inmates and their families.

According to the report, 2.3 million Americans are now behind bars — more than 1 percent of the entire population and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

This number also represents a 300 percent increase in the prison population since 1980, two years before Ronald Reagan launched the War on Drugs.

Prison expansion is not an accident, the report claims, nor was it “driven principally by surging crime rates.” Instead, the report said, the dramatic increase can be linked to “changes in sentencing laws, inmate release decisions, community supervision practices and other correctional policies.”

Black and Hispanic men have been disproportionately affected in this prison boom. According to Pew’s figures, 1 in 87 working-aged white men is behind bars, while the number is 1 in 12 for African American men. And more young African American men without a high school degree or GED are in prison or in jail than are employed — 37 percent compared to 26 percent.

Incarceration leads to a lifetime sentence of financial difficulty. “Incarceration casts a long-lasting shadow over former inmates, reducing their ability to work their way up,” the report says.

Of men who start in the bottom fifth of the United States’ earning distribution, 15 percent find themselves in the top fifth 20 years later, while only 2 percent of former inmates make the same ascent, the report stated.  

Former inmates also have higher rates of unemployment and lower earnings than those who did not spend time behind bars. Lost work and educational experience while in prison hurts a former inmate’s chances of landing a lucrative job, but the Pew’s data suggests that this does not account for the entire discrepancy. When controlling for years of work experience, former inmates still report lower wages and annual income, and fewer weeks worked per year.

“This implies that incarceration’s effect on economic outcomes has much more to do with having been convicted and imprisoned than it does with the work experience lost while imprisoned,” the report explains. “In other words, having a history of incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success.”

For example, jail time deflates a former inmate’s annual salary by 40 percent, and accounts for $179,000 in lost earnings by the age of 48.

Incarceration not only affects the economic potential of the individual behind bars, but inmates’ families as well. More than half of the 2.3 million people in prison or jail are parents of children under 18, and nearly half a million black fathers are incarcerated. This means that 1 in 9 black children — 11.4 percent — have a parent behind bars, a significant rise from 2.6 percent in 1980.

The Pew report cites Rucker C. Johnson’s study showing that when a father is incarcerated, his family’s income falls 22 percent, and even after his release, remains 15 percent lower than pre-incarceration amounts.

Securing permanent employment for former inmates would benefit society as a whole, the Pew report argues — it would ensure the former inmate’s ability to pay restitution and to financially support his or her family, and would also prevent recidivism.

“The United States’ over-reliance on incarceration and its disparate impact on African Americans and people of color is first and foremost ineffective and unjust,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP in a statement. “It’s also a waste of money that could be better invested elsewhere.”

In addition to costing former inmates and their families, incarceration also burdens state and federal budgets. Today, state correctional costs exceed $50 billion per year, representing 1 of every 15 general fund dollars.

“Our criminal justice system is in an obvious crisis, warehousing millions of people — mostly people of color — spending millions of dollars each year without much to show for it,” said Steve Hawkins, chief program officer and executive vice president of the NAACP. “And it’s time to re-examine the entire system and come up with some effective solutions.”

The report, “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” authored by Harvard professor Bruce Western and University of Washington Professor Becky Pettit, can be accessed online at: