I recently worked on a literature looking at some of the great work being done trying assess the impact of our policies of locking up millions of Americans. I thought I would share it here.
The Scope of the Problem
The scale of incarceration in the U.S. is without historical precedent. More than 1 in every 100 adults (2.3 million people) in the U.S is behind bars. The proportion of Americans incarcerated has increased by 300% since 1980, and the U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). In New York under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the incarceration rate quintupled from 73 prisoners per 100,000 resident in 1973 to 386 per 100,000 in 2007 (Drucker, 2011). In 2010 alone, more than 437,000 New Yorkers were arrested. The vast majority of these arrests were for “quality of life” offenses. For instance, in the South Bronx, only 3% of convictions were for felonies (Drucker, 2011). Nonetheless, even brief encounters with the criminal justice system can have profound consequences, such as the loss of jobs and housing, disruptions in school and health care, deportation, and losing custody of children. While the toll on individuals is profound, what is often lost in discussions about incarceration and reentry is the cumulative effect and burden mass incarceration places on entire communities.
The impact of mass incarceration is concentrated in communities of color. If whites were incarcerated at the same rates as blacks, more than six million men -- 5% of the male working age-population -- would be in prison (Wakefield, 2010). One in three young Black men (ages 20-34 years) without a high school diploma is incarcerated (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). An analysis by the Justice Mapping Center demonstrated that the vast majority of men sent prison come from a relatively few neighborhoods in New York City; fourteen community districts account for more than 50% of the men sent to prison from NYC, though they account for only 17% of the total adult male population (Justice Mapping Center, undated). In some neighborhoods, like East Harlem, one in every 20 adult men is in prison (Moore, 2007). These high rates of incarceration affect the same communities already dealing with soaring rates of unemployment, poverty and health disparities (Health disparities in New York City, 2004; Travis, McBride, & Solomon, 2005).
Some have suggested that these high rates of arrest and imprisonment in urban communities, amount to mass forced migration with concomitant population destabilization representing losses on the scale of epidemics or terrorist attacks (Drucker, 2011; Drucker, 2002; Thomas & Torrone, 2008). Virtually all the people we incarcerate will be released and return to our communities. In addition to the stigma of a criminal record and the damage to social networks that occurs during incarceration, many people reentering the community from prison face significant legal barriers to accessing health care, public housing and employment opportunities (Willmott & van Olphen, 2005; Iguchi, M.Y., 2005; Golembeski & Fullilove, 2008; Moore & Elkavich, 2008). Rather than helping them fulfill their responsibilities to their families, contribute to their communities and the economy, and make restitution to their victims, our current system almost insures that they will fail at each of these. In doing so, we weaken the health and economic vitality of some of our most fragile communities. While the specific mechanisms by which incarceration and reentry from prison affect communities are poorly understood, there is increasing evidence that incarceration, especially when concentrated in particular communities, hurts the economy, destabilizes families and social networks, contributes to poor health, and decreases public safety.
Mass incarceration diminishes earning power and the labor force, exacerbates social inequality and poverty, and diverts resources from communities that need them most.
Before the recession, studies suggested that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people one year post-release was as high as 60% (Drucker, 2011). According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, serving time reduces hourly wages for men by 11%; by age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). Unfortunately, these ill effects extend to the 2.7 million children who have a parent behind bars. Sixty-eight percent of incarcerated fathers were the primary source of income for their families (Travis & Waul, 2004). Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22% lower than the year before the incarceration, and family income remains 25% lower than it was even in the year after the father is released (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). Moreover, parental income is a strong predictor of a child’s future economic mobility, suggesting that the economic impact of incarceration is multi-generational.
Because incarceration is concentrated among men of color from particular neighborhoods, the economic impact in some communities is profound. A labor force analysis that takes incarceration into account found that younger, less educated Black men are more likely to be incarcerated then employed (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). Nationally, “the lost earnings associated with incarceration are equal to 6 percent of the total expected Hispanic male earnings and 9 percent of the total expected black male earnings (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010: 12).” Overall, increases in incarceration since 1980 have reduce the activity of young black men in the labor force by 3-5% according to one estimate (Clear, 2009).
Based on analysis of national social science databases, Western and Pettit (2010) found that incarceration has become the core dynamic sustaining socio-economic inequality between whites and blacks because of the way it disproportionately disadvantages black men in terms of employability and lifelong earnings, while increasing single-parent households in communities of color (Clear, 2009). Another economic analysis found that mass incarceration may help explain why poverty increased during the period of economic growth between 1980 and 2004; the authors concluded “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have been decreased by more than 20%... this translates into several million fewer people in poverty had mass incarceration not occurred (DeFina and Hannon, 2009).”
Finally, mass incarceration impacts the economy through the diversion of resources. An estimated $70 billion is spent annually on corrections. Researchers have identified several “million dollar blocks” in Brooklyn in which more than a million in taxpayer dollars is spent annually to incarcerate residents from each block (Spatial Information Design Lab, undated). The reinvestment of these resources into these same neighborhoods could go a long way towards reducing crime, preventing incarceration, and rebuilding community.
Mass incarceration impacts the health of individuals and communities
Mass incarceration affects the health of communities in two primary ways. First, research suggests that our current drug interdiction and deterrent strategies – which are concentrated in communities of color -- have serious consequences that adversely affect the health of communities, including increased violence (Mosher, J.F. and K.L. Yanagisako, 1991; Haden, 2004) and higher rates of HIV and other blood borne disease (Haden, 2004). Although illegal drug use is spread throughout society, the harm from drug use and the war on drugs is not evenly distributed; drug-related overdose and homicide, traumatic injury, HIV/AIDS -- are all higher in communities of color and where income inequality is greatest (Mosher, J.F. and K.L. Yanagisako, 1991; Galea, S. and D. Vlahov, 2002). Moreover, the criminalization of non-violent offenders contributes to the stigmatization of drug use, which in turn, discourages drug users from seeking needed services and negatively impacts their physical and mental health (Ahern, J., J. Stuber, and S. Galea, 2007; Young, M., et al, 2005). Once convicted, those reentering the community from prison or jail do so facing a set of barriers that puts their health in extreme peril -- including leaving prison without Medicaid or other health coverage, the inability to secure housing or employment, and often returning to communities already challenged by poverty, poor health, and a lack of resources.
Second, as suggested above, incarceration contributes to existing social and economic inequalities, which are key determinants of health (Hathaway, 2001). Incarceration disrupts social networks, undermines sources of social and financial support, impedes education, and contributes to homelessness and poverty -- all factors associated with poor health outcomes (London and Myers, 2006).
Mass incarceration diminishes family and community stability and cohesion
Incarceration has profound collateral consequences for families and communities. Nationally, 10% of all minor children have a parent in prison or jail or on probation or parole (Travis et al., 2005). Studies suggest that parents try to stay in touch with their children but have difficulty because of distance, visiting rules, and restrictions on phone calls (Travis et al., 2005). While the negative impact of incarceration on children can be mitigated by a number of factors, reviews of the literature suggest that the incarceration of a parent is associated with low self-esteem, depression, emotional withdrawal, disruptive behavior at home and school, poor school performance, higher rates of delinquency and arrest, illegal drug use, underemployment, and increased risk of abuse and neglect (Clear, 2009; Travis & Waul, 2004; Travis et al., 2005). Most children are cared for by the remaining parent or placed with other family members when a parent is incarcerated, but 10% of children whose mothers are incarcerated and 2% of children whose father are incarcerated end up in foster care (Travis & Waul, 2004).
This kind of disruption to families and social networks, when concentrated in particular communities, begins to undermine the social and family support structures that are especially vital in low-income communities (Drucker, 2011). Increasingly, research shows that incarceration weakens ties to community, family, work and civic engagement (Willmott & van Olphen, 2005). Todd Clear and colleagues (Clear, Rose, & Ryder, 2001) have done interesting analyses of how the spatial concentration of incarceration destabilizes informal networks of social control. Their analysis suggests that stigma, the financial impact of incarceration, the identity of neighborhoods as ‘problem places,’ and the disruption of social networks are the main mechanisms by which incarceration impacts families and neighborhoods for years. In a study looking at the spatial concentration of incarceration in particular New York City neighborhoods noted that the ability of communities to address the social and economic factors that contribute to incarceration diminishes as the size of the ex-inmate population grows (Fagan et al, 2004). Golembeski and Fullilove note: “[I]t is difficult to estimate how and to what degree residential instability leads to decreased community stability… each distinct neighborhood faces a unique set of challenges that depend on the population count, demographic distributions, and health needs of residents who have been incarcerated (2008: S189).”
Mass incarceration may be threatening public safety in some communities
The relationship between incarceration and crime is complex. But recent scholarship suggests that we may have reached a tipping point where the negative effects of large-scale imprisonment are outweighing any reduction in crime because the large numbers of people cycling in and out of prison is destabilizing neighborhoods (Clear, 2007; Drucker, 2011; Mauer, 2005; Western and Pettit, 2010). Scholars argue that possibility of improved public safety through incarceration has been exhausted (Western and Pettit, 2010) and that we have now entered an era where mass incarceration is self perpetuating (Drucker, 2011). The cycle of incarceration is thought to affect community safety through several pathways: 1) removal of residents changes the capacity of social networks to resolve problems and enforce community norms, and it weakens neighborhood ties; 2) removal of family members creates disruptions in home life that may lead to delinquency; 3) the imprisonment of huge numbers of young men concentrated in particular communities has grown to become a ‘bedrock experience’ that shapes families, businesses, institutions, and social groups in profound ways; and 4) the reentry from jail and prison of large numbers of individuals who have high needs but few resources strains already overburdened neighborhoods (Clear, 2007). Moreover, the impact of policing in communities of color may be reducing confidence and trust in the justice system among Blacks, impeding the effectiveness of law enforcement (Mauer, 2005).
Finally, public safety more broadly conceived recognizes that crime is not the only threat to safety. Family instability, poor health, substandard housing, and unemployment all threaten the health, welfare, and stability of communities. As Western and Pettit explain: “Public safety is built as much on the everyday routines of work and family as it is on police and prisons (2010: 18).”
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Clear, T. (2009). The collateral consequences of mass incarceration. Paper presented to the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, April 3, 2009.
Clear, T., Rose, D., & Ryder, J. (2001). Incarceration and the community: The problem of removing and returning prisoners. Crime & Delinquency, 47(3), 335-351.
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