Skip Navigation

How Prisons Are a Drag On New York’s Economy

Annual earnings for New Yorkers who have been in prison are nearly $1.9 billion less than those who are otherwise socioeconomically similar.

February 24, 2021
A group of Black Lives Matter protestors standing outside a correctional facility.
Kit MacAvoy/Getty

This origin­ally appeared in New York Daily News.

This year’s state budget forces lawmakers to confront a multi-billion-dollar defi­cit caused by the pandemic, and the needs of people impacted by this crisis. As lawmakers set prior­it­ies, they must take crim­inal justice into account, where key policy changes could improve the finan­cial stabil­ity of millions of New York­ers.

Parole reform — to reduce unne­ces­sary rein­car­cer­a­tions and shorten excess­ively long prison sentences — could contrib­ute to New York’s long-term finan­cial health, cut correc­tional expenses, and, most import­antly, change lives. It must be part of any final comprom­ise on the budget, or a prior­ity in the post-budget session.

Economic stabil­ity is most fragile in the months imme­di­ately follow­ing a person’s release from prison. Parole exacer­bates this prob­lem rather than ameli­or­at­ing it by need­lessly return­ing thou­sands to prison every year for petty non-crim­inal viol­a­tions of release condi­tions.

Take Jamal (not his real name), a Syra­cuse man affil­i­ated with Unchained, one of the organ­iz­a­tions lead­ing the campaign to pass the Less is More Act, which would dramat­ic­ally reduce the number of people returned to prison for tech­nical viol­a­tions and allow people to earn early discharge from parole. Accord­ing to Jamal, last Febru­ary, he had completed 22 months of his 30-month parole term without incid­ent. It was not easy for him to find a job to support himself, his fiancée and his three chil­dren.

But even when he found one, his parole officer sched­uled a meet­ing that conflic­ted with Jamal’s work sched­ule, forcing him to choose: work, or parole. He chose work, and for that was sent back to prison — just as the coronavirus swept the state. Jamal’s fiancée was forced to move, Jamal was stuck in prison during a deadly pandemic, and his 22 months of progress were erased.

People rein­car­cer­ated for non-crim­inal tech­nical parole viol­a­tions like him make up a stag­ger­ing 40% of new admis­sions to state prison every year, and the racial dispar­it­ies are stark. Black people are returned to prison for tech­nical viol­a­tions at five times the rate of whites, and Lati­nos are 30% more likely than whites to be rein­car­cer­ated for tech­nical viol­a­tions. This is espe­cially troub­ling in the context of the pandemic.

New research under­scores the link between crim­inal justice involve­ment and finan­cial stabil­ity. Accord­ing to a recent Bren­nan Center report, nation­ally, people convicted of even minor offenses earn 16% less each year than people who are other­wise similar to them. Worse, time in prison cuts annual earn­ings in half, trans­lat­ing to about half a million dollars over a life­time, often trap­ping people in poverty. 

New York is not immune to these chal­lenges. In a new report, the Bren­nan Center found that more than 330,000 living New York­ers have been to prison at some point. Nearly three-quar­ters of them are Black or Latino, despite account­ing for a little more than 30% of the state popu­la­tion. And the consequences are dire: Collect­ively, these New York­ers’ annual earn­ings are nearly $1.9 billion less than those who are other­wise socioeco­nom­ic­ally similar. This money could mean the differ­ence between poverty and stabil­ity for many, and in the aggreg­ate trans­lates to a weaker economy and tax base.

Our crim­inal justice policies also impose unne­ces­sary expenses on state taxpay­ers. Every year, New York spends roughly $6 billion on pris­ons and jails. The rein­car­cer­a­tion of people for non-crim­inal tech­nical viol­a­tions of parole alone — like Jamal — costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s before factor­ing in the costs to famil­ies and communit­ies.

State lead­ers should respond by prior­it­iz­ing parole reform. The Less is More Act is suppor­ted by a broad, bipar­tisan coali­tion and will drastic­ally reduce jail and prison costs. The Fair and Timely Parole Act would make parole release presumptive, lead­ing to more people being gran­ted release, sooner.

However, with 60% of our state prison popu­la­tion now serving determ­in­ate sentences, mean­ing they have a fixed release date and do not go to the parole board for a release decision, we must look beyond parole reform to senten­cing reform. We should also make it easier for people like Jamal to find good jobs after return­ing home. A clean slate law seal­ing the records of people who have completed their sentence and avoided new convic­tions could achieve that goal by help­ing people escape the stigma of a crim­inal record.

New York can take a major step toward compre­hens­ive crim­inal justice reform by includ­ing the Less is More Act in the state budget. Creat­ing a more effect­ive parole system — and help­ing people rebuild their lives after release from prison — will help build a stronger future for the state, now and for years to come.

Grawert is senior coun­sel in the Justice Program at the Bren­nan Center for Justice and a former assist­ant district attor­neySing­let­ary is co-founder and co-exec­ut­ive director of Unchained and is currently incar­cer­ated in the New York State prison system.