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Mass Incarceration Has Been a Driving Force of Economic Inequality

The wealth gap has disproportionately affected Black communities for decades. Covid-19 and our criminal justice system has only made it grow.

This origin­ally appeared in USA Today.

As people struggle with the economic fallout of Covid-19, there’s a grow­ing sense that the economy wasn’t work­ing well for many even before the lock­downs. In late 2019, in the middle of a theor­et­ic­ally strong economy, income inequal­ity hit a record high, and a cavernous wealth gap contin­ues to separ­ate too many white and Black famil­ies.

Those inequal­it­ies are seen, more than anywhere else, in the crim­inal justice system — and more specific­ally in what the system does to famil­ies. 

We know that people who have been convicted of a crime or imprisoned are more likely to face poverty and other seri­ous chal­lenges. But our Bren­nan Center report calcu­lates in dollars how crim­inal convic­tions set people up for a life­time of dimin­ished earn­ings, help­ing perpetu­ate poverty while fuel­ing racial, health and economic inequal­ity.

Given the sheer number of people impacted by the crim­inal justice system, this is not a prob­lem we can afford to ignore — espe­cially during a reces­sion. Any agenda for recov­ery at the federal, state and local levels must also seek to reduce the economic impact of mass incar­cer­a­tion.

Involve­ment in the crim­inal justice system — specific­ally time in prison or convic­tion of a crime — casts a shadow over someone’s life, limit­ing their abil­ity to earn a living wage in the short and long term. The effect of prison is espe­cially pronounced: a 52% reduc­tion in annual earn­ings and little earn­ings growth for the rest of their lives, amount­ing to a loss of $500,000 over several decades

Due to lower earn­ings, the total amount of money lost each year by people who have a crim­inal convic­tion or who have spent time in prison is at least $370 billion. These lost earn­ings could be spent on pursu­ing educa­tional oppor­tun­it­ies or buying a first home, which for many famil­ies have helped break the cycle of poverty. 

These severe consequences are inex­tric­ably bound up with the nation’s 400-year history of racial injustice. Black and Latino men and women make up more than half of all Amer­ic­ans who have been to prison. This dispar­ity likely stems from decades of discrim­in­at­ory policies and over­poli­cing of communit­ies of color.

And while all people who have been to prison face severely reduced earn­ings, Black and Latino Amer­ic­ans are less likely than whites of the same socioeco­nomic group to see their earn­ings recover, suggest­ing that impris­on­ment traps them in low-wage jobs. White men and women who have been to prison miss out on about $270,000 over their life­times compared with socioeco­nom­ic­ally similar white people who have not spent time in prison. For formerly incar­cer­ated Black and Latino people, it’s nearly $360,000 and more than $510,000, respect­ively, when compared with socioeco­nom­ic­ally similar Black and Latino people who have not been to prison.

There are at least three things poli­cy­makers must do to right these wrongs:

►Provide real second chances to those who have already been through the crim­inal justice system. This requires seal­ing and expun­ging old crim­inal records as well as provid­ing high-qual­ity educa­tional oppor­tun­it­ies in prison.

►The social safety net has also unraveled over the past few decades. This process must be reversed, and exclu­sions that keep people with crim­inal convic­tions from access­ing public hous­ing or other bene­fits should be narrowed or repealed outright. After all, nearly every­one who is sent to prison will be released at some point. 

►Reduce the number of people who inter­act with the crim­inal justice system in any way. Diver­sion programs that help people charged with lower-level crimes to avoid convic­tion have proved success­ful in many places, includ­ing New York City, which has seen misde­meanor case­loads plum­met over the past five years. Invest­ing in altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion, reclas­si­fy­ing some felon­ies as misde­mean­ors and remov­ing crim­inal penal­ties for some offenses alto­gether are other policies lawmakers need to pursue.

Allow­ing the economic consequences of a convic­tion or impris­on­ment to last a life­time is a moral fail­ure. For our economy to be truly built on racial and economic justice, the millions of Amer­ic­ans who’ve been through the system must be given a real second chance.