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New Report Documents Severe Financial Losses for Those Who Have a Criminal Conviction or Served Prison Time

Black and Latino people face steeper reductions in income due to a criminal conviction or prison sentence than white people. Findings show that the criminal justice system helps perpetuate the income and wealth gaps in the U.S.

September 15, 2020
Contact: Derek Rosenfeld, Media Contact,, 646-292-8381

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law today released Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings: How Involvement with the Criminal Justice System Deepens Inequality. The report examines the effects that criminal convictions and prison time can have on an American’s earnings and provides a breakdown of the losses by race. The authors show that, on average, a white person who was imprisoned as a young adult loses $267,000 in lifetime earnings as a result. This figure for a Black person is $358,900 and $511,500 for a Latino person.

Among its other findings, Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings offers the first-ever estimate of Americans alive today who have a misdemeanor conviction: at least 45 million, about 14 percent of the U.S. population. Those people lose an average of 16 percent in annual earnings due to that conviction.

“We found severe economic losses for those with even minor criminal convictions. No wonder so many Americans become trapped in the cycle of poverty and criminalization,” said Terry-Ann Craigie, co-author of Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings and economics fellow in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “While it is commonly believed that this is a country of second chances, our findings show that, for many who have been through the criminal justice system, second chances are not a reality.”

The authors of the report found that, for people who are socioeconomically similar, a white person with a criminal conviction earns more annually than a Black person who has never been convicted of a crime. By the end of a career, a white person with a criminal conviction earns an average of $49,000 a year, while a Black person who has no criminal conviction earns $39,000 a year.

“The new findings in the Brennan Center’s report sound an alarm about the intersection of racism and poverty. Formerly imprisoned Black and Latinx people suffer substantial and lifelong wage losses compared to their white counterparts. A Black person with no criminal conviction can expect less wages than a white person with a criminal conviction, underscoring how inextricable race is to wealth accumulation. This report shows how urgently reform is needed by exposing just how deeply the criminal justice system is robbing communities of color,” said Wes Moore, Chief Executive Officer of Robin Hood, which provided support for the report’s research.

Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings also includes the following findings:

  • The total amount of money lost each year by Americans who have a criminal conviction or spent time in prison is $372.3 billion. That’s enough money to close New York City’s poverty gap 60 times over.
  • At least 7 million people living in the U.S. have spent at least some time in prison. After release, they face up to a 51.7 percent loss in annual earnings compared to people who have not spent time in prison, a total loss of $55.2 billion in annual earnings for that population.

“The vast reach and excessively punitive nature of the American criminal justice system captures millions of people, causing them serious if not insurmountable financial losses that last decades,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and a co-author of the report. “The justice system must be understood as a prime contributor to the gaps in income and wealth that plague this country, including and especially the gaps between white people and people of color.”   

Among the report’s policy recommendations:

  • Shrink the overall size of the criminal justice system by reducing penalties, reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors, and decriminalizing other offenses
  • Provide people at risk of arrest with drug or mental health treatment
  • Eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment by adopting “ban-the-box” rules for job applications and increasing the hiring of people with criminal records

Nobel-prize winning economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz wrote the foreword to the report.

On Wednesday, September 16 at 12 pm ET, the Brennan Center will host “Incarceration and Inequality,” an online panel about the report. Speakers include authors Terry-Ann Craigie and Ames Grawert; Wes Moore; Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch; and Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program). To attend, please RSVP here.

Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings is online here.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country’s systems of democracy and justice.