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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.

  • Julia Bowling
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)