Spotlight Exclusives

Want to Reduce Poverty? Reduce Incarceration

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During the past 30 years, policymakers have been engaged in a grand social experiment: the mass incarceration of the U.S. population. That experiment has been an abysmal failure, costing taxpayers enormously and further entrenching poverty in disadvantaged communities, all without markedly increasing public safety.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has called for comprehensive prison reform, noting that the current criminal justice system exacerbates “a vicious cycle of poverty.” Decades of rising incarceration rates have brought the number of people in jails or prisons to over two million, or about 1 out of every 100 adults. Another five million or so individuals are either on parole or probation. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world and is more than twice that of the next closest OECD country.

Rising incarceration rates have been driven by a series of law and rule changes aimed at getting tough on crime and waging a war on drugs. The imposition of “truth-in-sentencing” requirements, enactment of “three strikes and you۪re out” laws, and of tightening parole and probation policies have reduced opportunities for early release and significantly increased the length of prison sentences, especially for repeat offenders. As a result, more people are sent away for longer periods of time, and the incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1975.

Source: King, R., M. Mauer & M. Young (2005). Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship. The Sentencing Project. p.7.

The benefits of these policy changes have been hard to find. Experts have concluded that increased incarceration rates have had relatively small crime-reducing impacts, if any at all. Nor have the increasing incarceration rates been warranted by changes in either violent or property crime rates.

Yet, the costs of this policy shift are staggering. Governments spend on average over $30,000 annually per prisoner in the U.S., with the majority of this spending at the local and state levels. But that is likely just the tip of the iceberg. During the past decade, researchers have identified serious individual and community-level harms attributable to rising incarceration. Not surprisingly, these ill effects are felt most sharply in already-disadvantaged communities from which inmates are disproportionately drawn. These neighborhoods have limited social resources and are consequently most vulnerable to disruptions like the mass incarceration of their residents.

Our own work offers evidence that mass incarceration has, over time, significantly increased poverty. In many ways, this finding is unsurprising. A criminal record, for example, has been shown to decrease the likelihood of landing a job and to reduce both the level and growth of wages. And in many states, a criminal record means reduced access to the social safety net and to licenses for certain types of professions. The economic harm extends to offenders۪ spouses and partners, who themselves often have a harder time getting and holding a job, due to the logistical difficulties of being in a relationship with someone in prison or jail.

Mass incarceration also contributes to greater poverty by causing population churning. The flux of felons leaving and returning to communities can disrupt local services and social fabric, destabilizing many poor neighborhoods. This “coercive mobility,” as criminologist Todd Clear calls it, interrupts social networks and undermines community-level trust, cooperation and political power. Population churning begets even greater crime, as neighbors in destabilized communities are less likely to watch out for each other, report suspicious activities, collaborate with police, and engage in other actions that reduce illegal activity.

Another way that mass imprisonment can create and sustain disadvantage is through the associated reduction in the probability of marriage and increase in the prevalence of single-parent families. Concentrated mass imprisonment can reduce probability of marriage simply by lowering the number of young men available for marriage in the communities where incarceration rates are high. Additionally, the prison experience itself can make men less suitable and attractive for marriage and parenthood. In turn, decreased marriage rates and increased single parenthood can be important factors in the proliferation of poverty and related social ills.

Finally, the spatial concentration of incarceration means that whole neighborhoods can be stigmatized as incarcerated communities. That stigma follows individuals from those communities as they search for jobs, apply for loans, or even seek housing. The productivity of entire families and their communities is stifled, and many find themselves stuck in a “poverty trap” long after serving their time,

Overall, we find that if the mass incarceration trend had not begun, several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years. Considering social impacts, the cost of mass incarceration has dwarfed its meager benefits. The logical conclusion would be to return incarceration rates to the levels seen before the run-up. Certainly, reduced incarceration of low-level drug offenders is a good place to start, along with more reasonable parole and probation rules, and the Attorney General۪s new plans are encouraging. While these possibilities seemed remote before the Great Recession, increased attention to government budgets at all levels might finally force the clear thinking we need to reduce mass incarceration and the poverty it creates.

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Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon are professors of sociology and criminology at Villanova University.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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