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Policy Solution

Poverty and Mass Incarceration in New York: An Agenda for Change

Summary: Criminal justice reform can save New York State money and reduce the racial wealth gap.

Man behind prison fence with New York City skyline behind him
Julie Gueraseva/Getty


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
Chief Exec­ut­ive Officer
Robin Hood


Despite signi­fic­ant progress toward redu­cing the scale of mass incar­cer­a­tion, New York State contin­ues to oper­ate one of the largest prison systems in the nation, hold­ing 43,500 people behind bars. foot­note1_etwytjw 1 E. Ann Carson, Pris­on­ers in 2019, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2020, 4–5, table 2, New analysis conduc­ted for this report reveals an even starker real­ity: roughly 337,000 New York­ers have spent time in prison at some point in their lives. That burden has fallen dispro­por­tion­ately on people of color: three-quar­ters of the state’s formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion is Black or Latino.

The collat­eral consequences they face are stag­ger­ing. A recent Bren­nan Center report, Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings: How Involve­ment with the Crim­inal Justice System Deep­ens Inequal­ity, shows that impris­on­ment and convic­tion dimin­ish economic oppor­tun­ity and, in aggreg­ate, deepen racial and economic inequal­ity. foot­note2_9wlb­wei 2 Terry-Ann Craigie, Ames Grawert, and Cameron Kimble, Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings: How Involve­ment with the Crim­inal Justice System Deep­ens Inequal­ity, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­–09/Econom­icIm­pact­Re­port_pdf.pdf. Time in prison reduces someone’s life­time earn­ing poten­tial by nearly half a million dollars on aver­age. And even a misde­meanor convic­tion reduces earn­ings by 16 percent. foot­note3_skuy2la 3 Craigie et al., Convic­tion, Impris­on­ment, and Lost Earn­ings, 7, table 1. The rami­fic­a­tions are dire. The legacy of impris­on­ment alone trans­lates to as much as $1.9 billion annu­ally in reduced earn­ings across New York State, borne over­whelm­ingly by people of color.

Redu­cing the economic damage of mass incar­cer­a­tion in New York — and its effect on racial inequal­ity — requires, first and fore­most, that the state shrink the size of its crim­inal justice system. But much must also be done for the many people who have already exper­i­enced convic­tion or impris­on­ment. Poli­cy­makers must improve the parole process, address a convo­luted senten­cing struc­ture, and expand job and hous­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for the hundreds of thou­sands of New York­ers who already have a crim­inal record.

Toward that end, this policy brief first explores the complex real­it­ies of New York’s crim­inal justice system and then recom­mends specific steps that state and local lawmakers can take to mitig­ate these collat­eral consequences of convic­tion and incar­cer­a­tion.

The Econom­ics of Reform

Facing dimin­ished tax reven­ues and uncer­tain prospects for federal aid amid the coronavirus pandemic, New York State lawmakers must contend with a seri­ous budget defi­cit that may seem to limit their ambi­tions. But many of the policies described here will either have no impact on the state’s bottom line or, in some cases, signi­fic­antly reduce correc­tional spend­ing. Redu­cing unne­ces­sary incar­cer­a­tion and mitig­at­ing its consequences for New York communit­ies is primar­ily a moral imper­at­ive. But these efforts can also rein­force rather than under­mine budget discip­line.

While some of these reforms come with a small up-front price tag, they should be viewed as invest­ments in the people of the state and its economic future. Today’s budget crisis under­scores the need to think about the state’s long-term finan­cial health. And as this report shows, crim­inal justice reform can comple­ment efforts to build a more diverse and resi­li­ent state work­force. Convic­tion and impris­on­ment present seri­ous obstacles to economic well-being, in some cases even mark­ing the differ­ence between escap­able and ines­cap­able poverty. Redu­cing those barri­ers and provid­ing economic oppor­tun­it­ies to people already ensnared in the crim­inal justice system will help more people achieve finan­cial inde­pend­ence, stabil­ity, and ideally, prosper­ity.

Policy Recom­mend­a­tions

Poli­cy­makers across the state should pursue three comple­ment­ary goals. First, they should reduce the number of people required to inter­act in any way with the crim­inal justice system, given the signi­fic­ant economic consequences of even a relat­ively minor crim­inal record. Second, they should ensure that people in jails or pris­ons spend less time there. Third, they should expand oppor­tun­it­ies for those already impacted by the crim­inal justice system. These three steps would help remedy the economic harms of mass incar­cer­a­tion borne by too many New York­ers and reduce the result­ing inequal­it­ies.

Specific policy recom­mend­a­tions are summar­ized below and described in depth in Section III. Poli­cy­makers should:

Decrease the Number of People Enter­ing New York’s Crim­inal Justice System

  • Legal­ize and regu­late marijuana. Marijuana arrests have driven up racial dispar­it­ies in the crim­inal justice system as a whole, as histor­ic­ally, Black New York­ers have dispro­por­tion­ately faced such charges. foot­note4_67r9i3i 4 New York State, Divi­sion of Crim­inal Justice Services, Adult Arrests 18 and Older: 2010–2019, 2020, https://www.crim­in­­net/ojsa/arrests/Allcounties.pdf; and see New York Civil Liber­ties Union, Reefer Madness: The Unfair Consequences of Marijuana Arrests in NY State, 2014,­a­tions/nyclu_reefer­mad­ness_final.pdf. Posses­sion of marijuana is not a viol­ent act and does not inher­ently endanger public safety; there is argu­ably no need for it to be crim­in­al­ized at all. foot­note5_nt3y­foi 5 Mary K. Stohr et al., Effects of Marijuana Legal­iz­a­tion on Law Enforce­ment and Crime: Final Report, U.S. Depart­ment of Justice, National Insti­tute of Justice, 2020, 114,­es1/nij/grants/255060.pdf (conclud­ing that “neither cannabis-related crime nor more seri­ous offenses seemed to be affected by legal­iz­a­tion”). State lawmakers should build on recent decrim­in­al­iz­a­tion efforts by fully legal­iz­ing marijuana, expun­ging marijuana-related offenses from crim­inal records, and ensur­ing that the proceeds of a regu­lated marijuana industry flow to communit­ies that have borne the brunt of past crim­inal enforce­ment.
  • Increase access to pre-arraign­ment diver­sion. Prosec­utors and nonprofits in New York City have collab­or­ated on diver­sion programs that allow people to avoid convic­tion, or even crim­inal charges, if they complete certain programs. These initi­at­ives are less common outside the five boroughs. Local poli­cy­makers should adopt these programs and expand them to cover more offenses, and the state should provide finan­cial support where neces­sary.

Reevalu­ate Excess­ive Sentences

  • Stream­line parole. New York State rein­car­cer­ates an alarm­ing number of people for tech­nical parole viol­a­tions, and Black people are espe­cially likely to be rein­car­cer­ated for them. foot­note6_g8ncrwq 6 Kendra Brad­ner and Vincent Schir­aldi, Racial Inequit­ies in New York Parole Super­vi­sion, Columbia Univer­sity Justice Lab, 2020, 5–6,­role%20Ra­cial%20Inequit­ies.pdf. State lawmakers should pass the Less Is More Act to end this punit­ive prac­tice, provide for a presump­tion of release, fully staff the Board of Parole, and ensure that commis­sion­ers are able to access all the records they need to make an informed decision.
  • Reform New York’s senten­cing struc­ture to decrease baseline sentences, lessen the sever­ity of habitual offender stat­utes, and reevalu­ate who and what are crim­in­al­ized. New York State’s senten­cing laws have become both excess­ively punit­ive and hope­lessly convo­luted. While their primary goal must be decreas­ing the number of people required to inter­act with the justice system in the first place, lawmakers should also pursue harm reduc­tion for those who do become involved with the system by short­en­ing sentences that are unne­ces­sar­ily long. Ulti­mately, lawmakers must reevalu­ate who and what ought to be crim­in­al­ized, and to what extent.

Help Formerly Incar­cer­ated Indi­vidu­als Succeed in Their Communit­ies

  • Expand access to prison educa­tion programs. Several highly success­ful programs in New York State enable imprisoned people to enroll in college courses and ulti­mately earn a degree, promot­ing employ­ment and redu­cing recidiv­ism in the process. State lawmakers can expand these initi­at­ives by repeal­ing restric­tions that prevent those in prison from receiv­ing state-suppor­ted, need-based finan­cial aid.
  • Make the seal­ing of crim­inal records broader, faster, and auto­matic. Crim­inal records never really disap­pear, which helps explain why convic­tions carry such long-term economic consequences. Poli­cy­makers can make it easier for formerly justice-involved people to find a job, secure a profes­sional license, or even obtain hous­ing by provid­ing for the auto­matic seal­ing of old crim­inal records. Ideally, this expan­sion would allow misde­meanor records to be sealed promptly, and felony records with time.
  • Remove barri­ers to hous­ing. People with a crim­inal record often struggle to find hous­ing, contrib­ut­ing to cycles of poverty and recidiv­ism. A key safety net, New York City’s public hous­ing author­ity, is currently reform­ing its prac­tices that bar people with crim­inal records. State and local offi­cials should explore other policy options to expand hous­ing access, such as “ban the box” policies for private rental hous­ing.

End Notes