Mass Incarceration Gets Attention as an Economic Issue (Finally)

In a surprise move, the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of unions, recently passed a resolution opposing long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and support reforms to help former prisoners reintegrate into society.

September 13, 2013

This week, in a move surprising to many, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution stating their intent to end mass incarceration. The country’s largest federation of unions now officially opposes long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, and supports reforms to help former prisoners reintegrate into society.

This announcement will be well received among economists working on criminal justice reform. Long seen as a racial justice issue in the American political arena, mass incarceration has recently, although belatedly, come to be recognized as a fiscal concern. With the world’s largest incarcerated population, the United States government spends an unsustainable $79 billion a year on corrections.

But, until now, the understanding of incarceration’s broader economic impact has largely been confined to academia. In the AFL-CIO press release, University of California at Berkeley Economist Steven Pitts put it best: “We cannot organize an economy that provides shared prosperity if we don’t also end mass incarceration.”

Mass incarceration greatly disrupts the American job market. Sixty-one percent of people in prison are between 18-39 years old -- in the prime of their working life. Removing able-bodied working-age people from the labor market lowers the quality of our work force and permanently damages their employment and educational opportunities. The formerly incarcerated face a daunting uphill battle with unemployment. In addition to gaps in employment and lack of work experience, the AFL-CIO resolution notes that many re-entering civil society return to neighborhoods, “long suffering from economic divestment, high unemployment, poor infrastructure and isolation.”

Most importantly, the formerly incarcerated face stigma and discrimination. Efforts to “ban the box” on employment forms asking about criminal records may have worked in earlier eras, but today a former convict’s past is only a quick Google search away. Given this reality, it is no surprise that 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, compared to 7.3 percent of the general population. High unemployment among ex-prisoners leads to higher state and federal government assistance payouts, loss of income tax revenue, and drains on spending for other essential programs.

The diminished employment prospects of formerly incarcerated individuals also have an enormous effect on their partners and children. Currently, 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. Having an incarcerated parent doubles a child’s chances of experiencing homelessness, and increases the likelihood that they’ll exhibit social problems, academic problems, and be incarcerated themselves. Nobel Prize Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz noted in the New York Times, “a young American’s life prospects are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country.” The economic impact of incarceration pushes families through the revolving doors of the criminal justice system, and fuels a multi-generational cycle of poverty.

The AFL-CIO’s resolution is an important sign that the biggest players in America’s economy are beginning to wake up to the reality that mass incarceration is as much an economic issue as a criminal justice one. Let’s hope more of those in the political and business arenas make ending mass incarceration a priority.

(Photo: Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO; Flickr)