Spotlight Exclusives

Our Criminal Justice System Perpetuates Poverty

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, The Sentencing Project Nazgol Ghandnoosh, The Sentencing Project, posted on

It۪s widely recognized that higher rates of concentrated poverty contribute to higher rates of certain crimes. Socioeconomic disadvantage also translates to worse criminal justice outcomes because of underfunded indigent defense, the prevalence of monetary bond requirements for pretrial release, and the dearth of treatment programs and sentencing alternatives. Less frequently understood, however, is that the criminal justice system is itself a vehicle of inequality.

Current policies undermine economic opportunity and place disproportionate burdens on the most disadvantaged individuals. However, while the challenges are stark, recent reforms in jurisdictions around the country can serve as models for reducing the harms of incarceration.

The criminal justice system deepens economic disadvantage by punishing people “after they have already been punished.” A criminal conviction limits employment prospects and reduces income growth by channeling people away from stable careers and toward unsteady jobs. People with felony drug convictions are also disqualified from public assistance and housing in many areas. Collateral consequences like these can turn a criminal justice encounter into a lifetime of punishment.

Mass incarceration also carries opportunity costs for society. The allocation of public resources to punitive programs comes at the expense of investments in crime prevention and substance abuse treatment programs. In 2010, the United States spent over $80 billion to incarcerate and supervise convicted individuals and those awaiting trial. That۪s over four times as much as the country spent in 1980. Meanwhile, proven crime-prevention programs are often under-funded.

Past Spotlight contributors have estimated that if mass incarceration had not occurred, the poverty rate would have fallen by an additional 2.8 percentage points between 1980 and 2004.

Because of their higher rates of poverty and incarceration, people of color are disproportionately affected by these policies. As I explain in my recent report with The Sentencing Project, these socioeconomic factors combine with bias in policies and practices to explain why African Americans and Latinos make up 56 percent of the incarcerated population, yet only 30 percent of the U.S. population.

We know the current system isn۪t working, but cities and states have begun implementing promising alternatives to our current failed approach. Crucially, many of these reforms are aimed at preventing unnecessary and excessive contact with the justice system.

For example, some precincts in and around Seattle have implemented a pre-booking diversion strategy: the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. The program gives police officers the option of transferring individuals arrested on drug and prostitution charges to social services rather than sending them deeper into the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors are also disentangling people unfairly brought into the system in Brooklyn, NY. There, the district attorney announced that he would stop prosecuting minor marijuana arrests so that young people of color are not burdened and stigmatized by criminal justice involvement “for engaging in non-violent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property.”

Policymakers are also increasingly scaling back collateral consequences. To reduce barriers to employment for those with criminal records, many jurisdictions have passed laws or issued administrative orders to “Ban the Box,” or remove the question about criminal history from initial job applications and delay a background check until later in the hiring process.

Missouri recently joined many states that have either fully or partly opted out of the federal ban on food stamps for people with felony drug convictions. And in 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development urged public housing agencies to relax admission policies in an effort to help people released from prison reunite with their families.

Finally, policymakers have begun emphasizing prevention over punishment when making public safety investments. In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, a reform that reduces prison exposure, limits collateral consequences, and increases investments to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

The reform reclassifies a number of low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, allowing 10,000 incarcerated individuals to petition for sentence reductions, and others to request to have their convictions reclassified.

An estimated $150 to $250 million of annual state prison savings will also be allocated to mental health and substance abuse treatment, programs to reduce school truancy and prevent dropouts, and support for victim services.

These initiatives demonstrate growing support for developing smart, and not just tough, criminal justice policies. And, they are important not just as a matter of basic fairness, but as a crucial tool in the fight against poverty.

The Center for American Progress observed in a recent report that: “Failure to address [the impact of criminal records] as part of a larger anti-poverty agenda risks missing a major piece of the puzzle.” It۪s a truth that policymakers and advocates must take to heart.

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Nazgol Ghandnoosh is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project. You can follow her on Twitter at @NazgolG.

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