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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_kfx43mt 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_qe0rf8a 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,–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_qcxfcfx 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_sgzynsb 4 New York State, Division of Criminal Justice Services, Adult Arrests 18 and Older: 2010–2019, 2020,; and see New York Civil Liberties Union, Reefer Madness: The Unfair Consequences of Marijuana Arrests in NY State, 2014, 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_546qfwd 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, (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_wnr2waq 6 Kendra Bradner and Vincent Schiraldi, Racial Inequities in New York Parole Supervision, Columbia University Justice Lab, 2020, 5–6, 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