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The Links Between Mass Incarceration and Poverty

Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore looks at some of the harms created by the criminal legal system, as well as potential solutions.

  • Wes Moore
March 1, 2021
A close-up shot of the door of a prison cell.
Michael Macor/Getty

This was origin­ally published as the fore­word to the Bren­nan Center report “Poverty and Mass Incar­cer­a­tion in New York: An Agenda for Change.”

The past year has been a reck­on­ing. As a nation, we were finally forced to confront the real­ity and inter­con­nec­ted­ness of racism, inequal­ity, and injustice, which have permeated our insti­tu­tions and systems for centur­ies. When the protests that began in Minneapolis made their way to New York, we marched not just for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, or Fred­die Gray but for all the lives that have been stolen and deval­ued by the very systems that are meant to uphold and preserve justice.

Recov­ery — of our health, our economy, and the moral fabric of our soci­ety — will take a nation­wide effort in which we all must parti­cip­ate, and that means address­ing the broken systems and inequit­ies in our own communit­ies. In New York, we have a long road ahead of us.

Despite efforts to shrink it, New York’s prison infra­struc­ture is one of the largest in the coun­try. Today, more than 40,000 New York­ers are behind bars and another 337,000 have spent time in prison at some point in their lives; three-quar­ters of them are people of color. As the recent Bren­nan Center report Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings: How Involve­ment with the Crim­inal Justice System Deep­ens Inequal­ity shows, this creates enorm­ous, last­ing consequences for impacted indi­vidu­als, famil­ies, and communit­ies. Time spent in prison can reduce a person’s life­time earn­ing poten­tial by half a million dollars. In New York State alone, impris­on­ment trans­lates to nearly $2 billion annu­ally in reduced earn­ings, over­whelm­ingly extrac­ted from communit­ies of color, the very communit­ies Robin Hood serves.

Between poli­cing, jails, pris­ons, proba­tion, and parole, New York State, its counties, and its local­it­ies spent $18.2 billion on the carceral system in 2019, accord­ing to a new report by the Center for Community Altern­at­ives. By contrast, New York spent just $6.2 billion that year on mental health services, public health, youth programs and services, recre­ation, and elder services.

This is no acci­dent or aber­ra­tion. Budgets are not impar­tial or apolit­ical docu­ments; they are reflec­tions of who and what we value as a soci­ety. Ours show us that for gener­a­tions, New York’s crim­inal justice system has inten­tion­ally and system­at­ic­ally blocked low-income communit­ies of color from real­iz­ing economic oppor­tun­ity and exer­cising their human poten­tial, and instead made poverty and impris­on­ment endemic to them.

But policies and budgets can change. Last year, New York passed import­ant reforms related to discov­ery, bail, and trial conduct, and our over­all prison popu­la­tion contin­ues to drop year over year. Follow­ing the lead of states includ­ing Louisi­ana, Missouri, and South Caro­lina, New York legis­lat­ors and advoc­ates have advanced a new set of prior­it­ies. The Less Is More Act, for example, would prevent thou­sands of New York­ers from being rein­car­cer­ated for tech­nical parole viol­a­tions like being late for curfew, fail­ing a drug test, or miss­ing appoint­ments with a parole officer.

The report that follows explores many poten­tial reforms that would decrease the flow of people into the system, reduce overly punit­ive penal­ties, and provide greater support to those who are formerly incar­cer­ated. We must not let our momentum or determ­in­a­tion waver. While we cannot erase the harms done to gener­a­tions disen­fran­chised by our crim­inal justice system, we can change how our soci­ety values the lives of those who have passed through it. We can create budgets that prior­it­ize our schools over our pris­ons, and we can invest in our communit­ies instead of surveilling them.

That would be the kind of last­ing, mean­ing­ful change that millions took to the streets to secure in the name of justice for lives taken far too soon.

Wes Moore is the chief exec­ut­ive officer of Robin Hood.