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Report

Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings: How Involvement with the Criminal Justice System Deepens Inequality

Summary: Encounters with the criminal justice system can depress wages for the entirety of a career. Black and Latino Americans suffer these consequences most acutely.

Published: September 15, 2020

Foreword

Amer­ica is approach­ing a break­ing point. For more than four decades, economic inequal­ity has risen inex­or­ably, stunt­ing productiv­ity, weak­en­ing our demo­cracy, and leav­ing tens of millions strug­gling to get by in the world’s most pros­per­ous coun­try. The crises that have rocked the United States since the spring — the coronavirus pandemic, the result­ing mass unem­ploy­ment, and a nation­wide upris­ing for racial justice — have made the inequit­ies plaguing Amer­ican soci­ety more glar­ing than ever.

This year’s inter­twined emer­gen­cies have also driven home a real­ity that some would rather ignore: that the grow­ing gap between rich and poor is a result not just of the market’s invis­ible hand but of a set of deeply misguided policy choices. Among them, this ground­break­ing report reveals, is our entrenched system of mass incar­cer­a­tion. Mass incar­cer­a­tion reflects and exacer­bates so many dimen­sions of this coun­try’s divides — in income and health, in voice and power, in access to justice, and most import­antly, over race.

The number of people incar­cer­ated in Amer­ica today is more than four times larger than it was in 1980, when wages began to stag­nate and the social safety net began to be rolled back. We’ve long known that people involved in the crim­inal justice system — a group that’s dispro­por­tion­ately poor and Black — face economic barri­ers in the form of hiring discrim­in­a­tion and lost job oppor­tun­it­ies, among other factors. This report demon­strates that more people than previ­ously believed have been caught up in the system, and it quan­ti­fies the enorm­ous finan­cial loss they sustain as a result; those who spend time in prison miss out on more than half the future income they might other­wise have earned.

Ascer­tain­ing through care­ful stat­ist­ical analyses just how costly the mass incar­cer­a­tion system has been to the people ensnared by it is a major achieve­ment. These find­ings reframe our under­stand­ing of the issue: As a perpetual drag on the earn­ing poten­tial of tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans, these costs are not only borne by indi­vidu­als, their famil­ies, and their communit­ies. They are also system-wide drivers of inequal­ity and are so large as to have macroe­co­nomic consequences.

That insight is vital today. The unpre­ced­en­ted economic contrac­tion triggered by the pandemic, and the federal govern­ment’s botched response, appears to be fall­ing hard­est on those who were already strug­gling, just like in past slumps. When employ­ers cut back, employ­ees with crim­inal records are all too often the first to be furloughed and the last to be rehired. And while major corpor­a­tions get billions of dollars in relief, millions of the jobless are being largely left in the cold.

These costs come on top of other enorm­ous costs imposed on soci­ety by our mass incar­cer­a­tion system. Some states have spent as much on pris­ons as on univer­sit­ies. The pandemic will make public funds even scarcer. More money spent on incar­cer­at­ing more people will weaken our future, while the same money spent on expand­ing our univer­sit­ies will lead to a stronger 21st century economy.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion has been a key instru­ment in voter suppres­sion, because people with crim­inal records are deprived of the right to vote in some states, and in many states former pris­on­ers are respons­ible for re-regis­ter­ing once they are released. This under­mines demo­cracy: since poor and Black people suffer from mass incar­cer­a­tion dispro­por­tion­ately, they will be under­rep­res­en­ted in our elect­or­ate.

Mean­while, a nation­wide reck­on­ing over deep-rooted racial injustice is forcing our coun­try to come to terms with the ways in which these injustices have been perpetu­ated in the century and a half since the end of slavery. For the past four decades, mass incar­cer­a­tion — with the depriva­tion of polit­ical voice and economic oppor­tun­ity that is so often asso­ci­ated with it — has been at the center. It renders economic mobil­ity for so many Black Amer­ic­ans nearly impossible.

And yet this moment also brings a historic oppor­tun­ity. By laying bare the grot­esque inequit­ies that under­gird our soci­ety, the upheavals of 2020 have given us the needed room to profoundly change our course. An ambi­tious, demo­crat­ic­ally driven move­ment to create a funda­ment­ally fairer and more resi­li­ent economy, based on a renewed and strengthened social contract, is at last gain­ing trac­tion. But true progress will not occur until economic mobil­ity is possible for our most margin­al­ized and most vulner­able citizens. The urgent policies advoc­ated here are a step toward ending that injustice and build­ing a more pros­per­ous and equal soci­ety. This report shows what needs to be done to stop mass incar­cer­a­tion. Equally import­ant, it shows how to deal with its legacy: the large number of Amer­ican citizens with crim­inal records. It was wrong that they lost so many of their form­at­ive years, often for minor infrac­tions. It is doubly wrong that they suffer for the rest of their lives from the stigma asso­ci­ated with impris­on­ment. For them, and for our entire soci­ety, we need to minim­ize the consequences of that stigma.

There is much that has to be done if our soci­ety is to fully come to terms with our long history of racial injustice. Stop­ping mass incar­cer­a­tion is an easy place to begin. This report makes a compel­ling case for the enorm­ous economic bene­fits to be derived from doing so.

Joseph E. Stiglitz
Univer­sity Professor
Columbia Univer­sity

Introduction

Amer­ica’s 400-year history of racial injustice contin­ues to produce profound economic inequal­it­ies — a real­ity our soci­ety must no longer ignore. The net worth of a typical white family, for example, is 10 times that of a typical Black family. foot­note1_ooq1h4r 1 Kris­ton McIn­tosh et al., “Examin­ing the Black-White Wealth Gap,” Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, Febru­ary 27, 2020, https://www.brook­ings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examin­ing-the-black-white-wealth-gap. Shock­ingly, despite the successes of the civil rights move­ment, this racial wealth gap has barely changed in the last half century. foot­note2_t4jw­c6a 2 Dion­issi Aliprantis and Daniel Carroll, What Is Behind the Persist­ence of the Racial Wealth Gap?, Federal Reserve Bank of Clev­e­land, 2019, 1, https://www.clev­eland­fed.org/news­room-and-events/public­a­tions/economic-comment­ary/2019-economic-comment­ar­ies/ec-201903-what-is-behind-the-persist­ence-of-the-racial-wealth-gap.aspx. See also William Darity Jr. et al., What We Get Wrong About Clos­ing the Racial Wealth Gap, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, April 2018, https://sociale­quity.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/what-we-get-wrong.pdf.

At the same time, as we are all too aware, the crim­inal justice system subjects Amer­ic­ans to profoundly unequal treat­ment. A century ago, a Black man was four times as likely as a white man to be incar­cer­ated. In 1980, around the height of the “war on drugs,” he was 11 times as likely. foot­note3_8q11dc8 3 Calvin Scher­mer­horn, “Why the Racial Wealth Gap Persists, More than 150 Years After Eman­cip­a­tion,” Wash­ing­ton Post, June 19, 2019, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/outlook/2019/06/19/why-racial-wealth-gap-persists-more-than-years-after-eman­cip­a­tion. Black men and women are also jailed at more than triple the rate of white men and women. And nearly half of all people serving effect­ive life sentences are Black. foot­note4_m6jy­hck 4 See Report of the Senten­cing Project to the United Nations Special Rappor­teur on Contem­por­ary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrim­in­a­tion, Xeno­pho­bia, and Related Intol­er­ance Regard­ing Racial Dispar­it­ies in the United States Crim­inal Justice System, The Senten­cing Project, March 2018, https://www.senten­cing­pro­ject.org/public­a­tions/un-report-on-racial-dispar­it­ies. Dispar­ate enforce­ment is one reason; for example, the major­ity of people stopped in New York City’s contro­ver­sial stop-and-frisk program were Black. foot­note5_p2ly6er 5 New York Civil Liber­ties Union, “Stop-and-Frisk Data,” last accessed August 7, 2020, https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-Frisk-data. A federal judge also concluded that the program oper­ated with discrim­in­at­ory intent. See Floyd v. City of New York, 959 F. Supp. 2d 540, 661 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).  Perhaps most disturb­ingly, Black men and women are far more likely to be the victims of police use of force. foot­note6_nw2h­fp7 6 Timothy Willi­ams, “Study Supports Suspi­cion that Police Are More Likely to Use Force on Blacks,” New York Times, July 7, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/study-supports-suspi­cion-that-police-use-of-force-is-more-likely-for-blacks.html. The protests that erup­ted in the spring of 2020, cata­lyzed by the Black Lives Matter move­ment, revealed and rein­forced a grow­ing public under­stand­ing of these systemic racial dispar­it­ies in the crim­inal justice system. foot­note7_62kuguz 7 Larry Buchanan, Quoc­trung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Move­ment in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/inter­act­ive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.

Those two points are not unre­lated. In fact, the stag­ger­ing racial dispar­it­ies in our crim­inal justice system flow directly into economic inequal­ity. These consequences are magni­fied and rein­forced through­out a life­time of discrim­in­a­tion in employ­ment and access to economic oppor­tun­ity. foot­note8_asbwas9 8 For example, the late Devah Pager, a renowned soci­olo­gist, noted that racial discrim­in­a­tion and justice involve­ment both caused Black job applic­ants to miss out on oppor­tun­it­ies. “The Mark of a Crim­inal Record,” Amer­ican Journal of Soci­ology 108 (2003): 937, 958. This study, and its rela­tion­ship to this report’s find­ings, will be discussed at greater length below. They are felt by indi­vidu­als, of course, but also by famil­ies and communit­ies. And they are felt in such large numbers, and in such a systemic way, that they consti­tute a major struc­tural factor in economic inequal­ity.

This report exam­ines the long-term economic effects of convic­tion and impris­on­ment. It demon­strates that people involved in the crim­inal justice system tend to earn signi­fic­antly less over the course of their lives than other­wise would be the case. Among other factors, missed oppor­tun­it­ies, inad­equate reentry services, and social stigma contrib­ute to this link between impris­on­ment and poverty. The consequences, at both an indi­vidual and a systemic level, are dire.

To reach these conclu­sions, the report starts by identi­fy­ing how many of the more than 70 million people with crim­inal records have become involved with the crim­inal justice system in each of three discrete ways: through impris­on­ment, convic­tion of a felony without subsequent impris­on­ment, and convic­tion of a misde­meanor.

Then it assesses how each inter­ac­tion depresses indi­vidu­als’ earn­ings. Last, the report uses an innov­at­ive method to illus­trate how the reduc­tion in earn­ings persists over a life­time, deep­en­ing poverty — partic­u­larly for Black and Latino people.

Specific­ally, this report finds the follow­ing:

  • Convic­tion and impris­on­ment affect more people, in more seri­ous ways, than was previ­ously real­ized. Using data through 2017, this report concludes that about 7.7 million living Amer­ic­ans have at some point been imprisoned, about 12.1 million have been convicted of a felony without being imprisoned for it, and about 45 million have been convicted of at least one misde­meanor. (Due to data limit­a­tions, some over­lap may exist between these categor­ies.)
  • Convic­tion and impris­on­ment exper­i­enced early in life lower indi­vidu­als’ annual earn­ings.
    • People who have spent time in prison suffer the greatest losses, with their subsequent annual earn­ings reduced by an aver­age of 52 percent.
    • People convicted of a felony but not imprisoned for it see their annual earn­ings reduced by an aver­age of 22 percent.
    • People convicted of a misde­meanor see their annual earn­ings reduced by an aver­age of 16 percent.
  • These earn­ings losses entrench poverty. The reduced earn­ings compound over the course of a life­time. On aver­age, formerly imprisoned people earn nearly half a million dollars less over their careers than they might have other­wise. These losses are borne dispro­por­tion­ately by people already living in poverty, and they help perpetu­ate it.
  • These earn­ings losses worsen economic dispar­it­ies between Black, Latino, and white communit­ies. White people who have a prison record see their earn­ings trend upwards, while formerly imprisoned Black and Latino people exper­i­ence a relat­ively flat earn­ings traject­ory. Because Black and Latino people are also overrep­res­en­ted in the crim­inal justice system, these economic effects are concen­trated in their communit­ies and exacer­bate the racial wealth gap.

Through­out this report, estim­ates of the effects of crim­inal justice involve­ment were produced by compar­ing people who have exper­i­enced impris­on­ment, felony convic­tion without prison, or misde­meanor convic­tion with people who have had no such exper­i­ence but other­wise closely resemble them. Members of these compar­ison groups are referred to inter­mit­tently as “simil­arly situ­ated people” or “peers” of justice-involved people.

Table 1 summar­izes this report’s quant­it­at­ive find­ings. The aver­age annual wage loss exper­i­enced by each group is multi­plied by the size of its popu­la­tion to demon­strate the aggreg­ate effect of convic­tion and impris­on­ment.

As this table shows, the losses reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars, but even that likely under­es­tim­ates the true economic impact of the crim­inal justice system, for two reas­ons. First, this report does not study the effect of jail on earn­ings. Reli­able inform­a­tion on the jail popu­la­tion is hard to find, but the jail system’s sprawl­ing size makes the issue an import­ant area for future research. Second, this report does not quantify the second­ary costs of involve­ment in the crim­inal justice system, such as the earn­ings lost to a family when a parent must leave a job to care for a child during a part­ner’s incar­cer­a­tion, trans­port­a­tion costs to visit loved ones in prison, money sent to commis­sary accounts or spent on phone and video calls during a loved one’s incar­cer­a­tion, money spent on court costs and crim­inal justice debt, or the cost of a private attor­ney, to name just a few. (A full cost-bene­fit analysis of current crim­inal justice policies is beyond the scope of this report.)

Given the devast­at­ing finan­cial consequences of contact with the crim­inal justice system, poli­cy­makers should, first and fore­most, shrink its over­all size and reduce the use of convic­tion and impris­on­ment. For those who are subjec­ted to either sanc­tion, steps to counter discrim­in­a­tion and bolster the social safety net can mitig­ate subsequent harm to their live­li­hoods.

Specific­ally, the authors recom­mend the follow­ing policy changes to confront the devast­at­ing and inequit­able consequences of convic­tion and incar­cer­a­tion:

  • Juris­dic­tions should reclas­sify some felon­ies as misde­mean­ors and decrim­in­al­ize other offenses. This step would reduce the preval­ence of all three crim­inal sanc­tions explored in this report.
  • Poli­cy­makers should invest in paths away from arrest and prosec­u­tion, such as programs that provide people at risk of arrest with drug or mental health treat­ment. Similar programs could allow crim­inal charges that have already been filed to be dismissed and sealed upon comple­tion. Aside from redu­cing convic­tions, these changes could reduce the risk of viol­ent inter­ac­tions with police.
  • States and the federal govern­ment should invest in altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion. Proba­tion, community service, or other sanc­tions are more appro­pri­ate than prison in many cases and would reduce the harms exper­i­enced by people with convic­tions.
  • Poli­cy­makers should expand oppor­tun­it­ies for justice-involved people to secure well-paying jobs. First, they should reduce barri­ers to employ­ment, such as occu­pa­tional licens­ing rules that exclude people with crim­inal records. Second, juris­dic­tions that have yet to do so should adopt “ban-the-box” rules for job applic­a­tions. These rules, which defer inquir­ies about a crim­inal record in the hiring process, expand employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies and reduce the long-term consequences of a crim­inal record. The private sector can also help: Busi­nesses should expand their hiring of people with crim­inal records by, among other things, limit­ing the scope of crim­inal back­ground checks.
  • Juris­dic­tions should prevent employ­ment and hous­ing discrim­in­a­tion based on crim­inal history. People return­ing from prison often find them­selves turned away from jobs and hous­ing without a second look. While crim­inal records may be relev­ant to some inquir­ies, they need not oper­ate as auto­matic disqual­i­fic­a­tions. 
  • Poli­cy­makers should strengthen the social safety net to help keep people with a crim­inal record out of poverty, despair, and recidiv­ism. For one thing, cities should remove barri­ers to public hous­ing and help famil­ies living in such communit­ies reunite after a family member’s incar­cer­a­tion. Relatedly, the federal govern­ment should repeal barri­ers to govern­ment bene­fits. Until Congress does so, states can act on their own to blunt the impact of these punit­ive rules. And finally, correc­tional admin­is­trat­ors should connect people leav­ing incar­cer­a­tion with govern­ment bene­fits. This can help prevent hunger and recidiv­ism in the first days after release.

End Notes

I. The Scope of America’s Criminal Justice System

This analysis starts by estim­at­ing the number of people who have been affected by the crim­inal justice system in each of three distinct ways: previ­ous impris­on­ment, convic­tion of a felony that did not result in impris­on­ment, and convic­tion of a misde­meanor. Each of these sanc­tions is highly likely to reduce earn­ings, making it import­ant to under­stand how wide­spread they are.

There are many other ways that people can encounter the crim­inal justice system. Accord­ing to the FBI, more than 70 million people in the United States have a crim­inal record of some kind, mean­ing they have at least been arres­ted. foot­note1_nnum­s5m 1 There is a risk that people with records in multiple states are coun­ted twice in the FBI data­base, and records may not be promptly removed upon death, to say noth­ing of the confound­ing effects of seal­ing and expun­ge­ment. That said, 70 million appears to be the consensus figure. See Matthew Fried­man, “Just Facts: As Many Amer­ic­ans Have Crim­inal Records as College Diplo­mas,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Novem­ber 17, 2015, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/just-facts-many-amer­ic­ans-have-crim­inal-records-college-diplo­mas, citing Gary Fields and John R. Emsh­willer, “As Arrest Records Rise, Amer­ic­ans Find Consequences Can Last a Life­time,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/as-arrest-records-rise-amer­ic­ans-find-consequences-can-last-a-life­time-1408415402. For a poten­tial compar­ison point, see “NGI Monthly Fact Sheet,” Next Gener­a­tion Iden­ti­fic­a­tion, last modi­fied Novem­ber 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repos­it­ory/ngi-monthly-fact-sheet/view (noting more than 77.7 million “crim­inal finger­print” data­base entries). Millions of people cycle through Amer­ican jails annu­ally. And tens of millions of people have a family member who has been involved in the crim­inal justice system in some way. foot­note2_7dan­h45 2 By some estim­ates, half of all Amer­ic­ans may have had a family member incar­cer­ated. See Every Second: The Impact of the Incar­cer­a­tion Crisis on Amer­ica’s Famil­ies, FWD.us, 2018, https://everysecond.fwd.us/down­loads/EverySecond.fwd.us.pdf. All of these inter­ac­tions may disrupt earn­ings and result in other long-last­ing, seri­ous harms. This report’s focus on convic­tion and impris­on­ment should not be read as trivi­al­iz­ing or ignor­ing the costs of these other types of crim­inal justice involve­ment.

Previ­ous analyses have stud­ied the impact of incar­cer­a­tion on subsequent earn­ings but have examined the effect of convic­tion only rarely. Few analyses have attemp­ted to disag­greg­ate the effect of convic­tion from the effect of incar­cer­a­tion, or the impact of being convicted of a felony from that of a misde­meanor convic­tion. This report aims to fill those research gaps.

>> The size of each of the three popu­la­tions stud­ied in this report was derived from data on the number of people affected by each part of the crim­inal justice system in a given year, redu­cing that figure to account for recidiv­ism and mortal­ity, and then repeat­ing the process for all subsequent years for which there is avail­able data.

>> For formerly imprisoned people, the model starts with the follow­ing data points:

>> For each year, the model then matches annual releases with that year’s corres­pond­ing mortal­ity and recidiv­ism estim­ates.

>> To visu­al­ize this process, start with a repres­ent­at­ive year, 2005. In that year, 701,632 people were released from prison. The authors estim­ated that, given 12 years to recidivate before 2017, 63 percent would return to prison. Of the 37 percent of people who did not return to prison — 259,899 people — the authors estim­ated that 90 percent have survived to the current day. As a result, of the people released from prison in 2005 who did not return, an estim­ated 234,914 are alive today.

>> The results from each year were then added together.

A. Formerly Imprisoned People
Estim­ate: 7.7 million

Since no govern­ment source tracks the number of formerly imprisoned people, the authors devised a model to calcu­late an estim­ate. The authors star­ted by enter­ing (or inter­pol­at­ing, where neces­sary to bridge data gaps) the number of people released from prison in each year in the study period. Next, these totals were adjus­ted for recidiv­ism rates to ensure that the model did not double count people who, accord­ing to the data­set, later returned to prison. Last, the data was adjus­ted for mortal­ity rates to remove the number of formerly imprisoned people who likely have not survived to the present day. This process broadly conforms to the struc­ture of previ­ous research but includes more recent data.

Accord­ing to this process, an estim­ated 7.7 million people alive today — a little less than the popu­la­tion of Virginia — have been to prison at some point in their lives. foot­note8_mti6y6l 8 In 2017, the year stud­ied in this report, Virgini­a’s popu­la­tion was 8.14 million. “Popu­la­tion Distri­bu­tion by Race/Ethni­city,” Kaiser Family Found­a­tion, accessed May 27, 2020, https://www.kff.org/other/state-indic­ator/distri­bu­tion-by-raceeth­ni­city/?dataView=1&current­Time­frame=1&sort­Model=%7B%22colId%22:%22Loca­tion%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D. Inter­est­ingly, more than 75 percent of these people were released in 2000 or later, mean­ing their prison terms likely began in the late 1990s. foot­note9_74gt2r3 9 The aver­age prison stay is about three years. Dani­elle Kaeble, Time Served in State Prison, 2016, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Novem­ber 2018, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=6446.  There­fore, while it may be tempt­ing to attrib­ute the size of the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion to archaic policies that have since been repealed, that does not appear to be entirely accur­ate.

This estim­ate is broadly consist­ent with prior research. Some smal­ler estim­ates cover just the work­ing-age popu­la­tion or are now out of date. foot­note10_z13nxqg 10 See, e.g., Cher­rie Bucknor and Alan Barber, The Price We Pay: Economic Costs of Barri­ers to Employ­ment for Former Pris­on­ers and People Convicted of Felon­ies, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2016, 1, 4–5, http://cepr.net/images/stor­ies/reports/employ­ment-pris­on­ers-felon­ies-2016–06.pdf?v=5; and John Schmitt and Kris Warner, Ex-offend­ers and the Labor Market, Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2010, 3, fig. 1, and 4, https://www.cepr.net/docu­ments/public­a­tions/ex-offend­ers-2010–11.pdf. Roughly 60 percent of the Amer­ican popu­la­tion is “work­ing age.” “Quick Facts,” United States Census Bureau, accessed March 18, 2020, https://www.census.gov/quick­facts/fact/table/US/PST045218. More recent research has estim­ated that in 2010 there were roughly 7.3 million currently or formerly imprisoned people in the United States. foot­note11_khmxdt6 11 Sarah K. S. Shan­non et al., “The Growth, Scope, and Spatial Distri­bu­tion of People with Felony Records in the United States, 1948–2010,” Demo­graphy 54, no. 5 (2017): 1804–5 and table 1. Because this report’s estim­ate uses data from 1965 through 2017 — suffi­cient data on 2018 was not yet avail­able at the time of public­a­tion — a higher estim­ate is to be expec­ted here. This report’s estim­ate would be even higher but for the relat­ively high mortal­ity estim­ates used here. foot­note12_hysgyh0 12 This report assumes a mortal­ity rate among the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion 3.5 times higher than that of the general popu­la­tion. Previ­ous research­ers have assumed mortal­ity rates roughly 1.5 times higher than that of the general popu­la­tion. Shan­non et al., “The Growth, Scope, and Spatial Distri­bu­tion,” 1802. For more on this matter, see appendix B.

As shown in table 2, men vastly outnum­ber women among the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion. Black and Latino people also make up a major­ity of the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion, with formerly imprisoned Black men and women outnum­ber­ing their white peers.

As depic­ted in figure 1, that is wildly out of propor­tion with the general popu­la­tion. But the dispro­por­tion­ate repres­ent­a­tion of Black and Latino people in the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion should not be surpris­ing, given the well-docu­mented, contin­ued exist­ence of racial dispar­it­ies in prison popu­la­tions. foot­note13_588eoqu 13 James Cullen, “Despite Progress, Prison Racial Dispar­it­ies Persist,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, August 19, 2016, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/blog/despite-progress-prison-racial-dispar­it­ies-persist. Indeed, accord­ing to the most recently avail­able data, the number of Black men and women behind bars contin­ues to exceed the number of imprisoned white men and women. foot­note14_8pzf1u0 14 E. Ann Carson, Pris­on­ers in 2018, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2020, 6, table 3, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=6846. It would be surpris­ing if these persist­ent dispar­it­ies were not reflec­ted in the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion.

B. People with a Felony Convic­tion Not Sentenced to Impris­on­ment
Estim­ate: 12.1 million

While impris­on­ment is a seri­ous sanc­tion, formerly imprisoned people repres­ent just a small slice of the justice-involved popu­la­tion. Those who have been to prison or are currently imprisoned — around 10 million people in total — compose just 15 percent of the estim­ated 70 million Amer­ic­ans with a crim­inal record of some kind. foot­note15_grx4oe3 15 Roughly 1.5 million people were in a state or federal prison in 2017. Jennifer Bron­son and E. Ann Carson, Pris­on­ers in 2017, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2019, 1, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=6546. Factor­ing in the 7.7 million formerly imprisoned people iden­ti­fied in this report leads to the conclu­sion that roughly 9.2 million Amer­ic­ans had been imprisoned or were incar­cer­ated in 2017.

Felony convic­tions are on their own a seri­ous sanc­tion likely to impact earn­ing poten­tial. Under­stand­ing their preval­ence and effect is vital to devel­op­ing a full picture of the economic impact of the crim­inal justice system. However, isol­at­ing the number of people with felony records who have not been sentenced to impris­on­ment is diffi­cult, as many people convicted of felon­ies do spend time in prison. foot­note16_xyxw1hm 16 Sean Rosen­merkel, Matthew Durose, and Donald Farole Jr., Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2006 – Stat­ist­ical Tables, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2009, 4, table 1.2, https://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fssc06st.pdf.

Most people convicted of felon­ies are sentenced to prison, proba­tion (a form of super­vised release gener­ally imposed as an altern­at­ive to incar­cer­a­tion), or a split sentence combin­ing the two. foot­note17_cznjxcq 17 Rosen­merkel, Durose, and Farole, Felony Sentences in State Courts, 4, table 1.2.  To estim­ate the number of people who have been convicted of a felony but not sentenced to prison, then, this report starts with data on the annual number of people enter­ing proba­tion every year.

As in the last section, this data was then adjus­ted to account for recidiv­ism and mortal­ity. Recidiv­ism data was drawn from reports on people put on proba­tion in the federal system. foot­note18_gzkzxo1 18 Joshua A. Mark­man et al., Recidiv­ism of Offend­ers Placed on Federal Community Super­vi­sion in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2014, table 4, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ropfc­s05p0510.pdf. For mortal­ity estim­ates, the authors assumed that people convicted of felon­ies but not sentenced to prison face mortal­ity risks higher than the general popu­la­tion’s but lower than the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion’s. The authors also added other vari­ables to ensure, to the extent possible, that the model captured only people who were sentenced to proba­tion without having also been imprisoned. The total number of proba­tion­ers was then reduced by half because, accord­ing to BJS data, half of people sentenced to proba­tion receive that sentence for a misde­meanor convic­tion. foot­note19_z4bf­sdi 19 Lauren E. Glaze and Thomas P. Bonczar, Proba­tion and Parole in the United States, 2005, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2006, table 3, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus05.pdf.

Repeat­ing this process for each year’s cohort of people enter­ing proba­tion, the authors estim­ate that approx­im­ately 12.1 million people alive today have been convicted of a felony offense without being imprisoned for it. Unfor­tu­nately, BJS does not track the racial break­down of people enter­ing or exit­ing proba­tion. foot­note20_8shx8pg 20 Further, in 2001 BJS changed the way it reports the racial compos­i­tion of the proba­tion popu­la­tion. Compare Lauren E. Glaze, Proba­tion and Parole in the United States, 2001, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2002, 4, table 4, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=1111, with Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Proba­tion and Parole in the United States, 2000, 2001, 6, table 5, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=1230. As a result, it is not possible to estim­ate the demo­graphic makeup of this popu­la­tion.

There is a risk that this figure is an over­es­tim­ate, since it may include some people who have spent time in prison. For example, someone who entered prison for a separ­ate offense after proba­tion was termin­ated would be coun­ted in both groups. The patch­work nature of crim­inal justice data makes it impossible to fully elim­in­ate such a risk.

However, two addi­tional limit­a­tions suggest that this model might produce an underestim­ate. First, the data neces­sary for this method goes back only as far as 1980, so this model covers a shorter period than the model for the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion. Second, many people convicted of felon­ies are sentenced to incar­cer­a­tion in local jails, a popu­la­tion that neither this model nor the previ­ous section’s analysis captures. foot­note21_1q34422 21 Accord­ing to BJS, roughly 28 percent of people convicted of a felony were sentenced to incar­cer­a­tion in a jail. Rosen­merkel, Durose, and Farole, Felony Sentences in State Courts, 4, table 1.2. However, this data is from 2006. The portion of people sentenced to jail may have changed in the inter­ven­ing decade as pris­ons became less crowded, making them more attract­ive options to senten­cing judges seek­ing to impose a term of incar­cer­a­tion. As a rough estim­ate, though, this method helps develop a broader under­stand­ing of the justice-involved popu­la­tion.

C. People with a Misde­meanor Convic­tion
Estim­ate: 45 million

Though less severe than felon­ies, misde­mean­ors also have a long-term impact on earn­ing poten­tial. Convic­tions for these gener­ally lower-level crimes may show up on back­ground checks, disqual­ify someone from hold­ing a profes­sional license, or come with other burden­some condi­tions. Any estim­ate of the preval­ence of a crim­inal convic­tion and its effects must reckon with the sprawl­ing misde­meanor justice system.

Most Amer­ic­ans are famil­iar from popu­lar culture with the clas­sic model of the crim­inal case: refer­eed by a judge, the prosec­utor and defense attor­ney present evid­ence and exam­ine and cross-exam­ine witnesses, with guilt or inno­cence decided by an impar­tial jury. But this model describes only a vanish­ingly small percent­age of cases. foot­note22_074tky3 22 More than 90 percent of cases are resolved by plea bargain, for example. Emily Yoffe, “Inno­cence Is Irrel­ev­ant,” Atlantic, Septem­ber 2017, https://www.theat­lantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/inno­cence-is-irrel­ev­ant/534171. It fails to capture the real­ity of the misde­meanor system. People accused of such crimes face a stream­lined and, in many cases, stripped-down form of justice. foot­note23_ymye­f75 23 Megan T. Steven­son and Sandra G. Mayson, “The Scale of Misde­meanor Justice,” Boston Univer­sity Law Review 98 (2018): 735–36, http://www.bu.edu/bulawre­view/files/2018/06/STEVEN­SON-MAYSON.pdf. As law professor Alex­an­dra Natapoff puts it, “The slip­shod qual­ity of petty offense processing is a domin­ant systemic norm that competes vigor­ously with and some­times over­whelms found­a­tional values of due process and adversarial adju­dic­a­tion.” Alex­an­dra Natapoff, “Misde­mean­ors,” South Cali­for­nia Law Review 85 (2012): 1315–16, https://south­erncali­for­ni­alawre­view.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/85_1313.pdf. For a survey of New York City’s misde­meanor system, see Issa Kohler-Haus­mann, “Mana­gerial Justice and Mass Misde­mean­ors,” Stan­ford Law Review 66, no. 3 (2014): 629–39, http://www.stan­ford­lawre­view.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/03/66_Stan_L_Rev_611_Kohler-Haus­mann.pdf.

While this field of study is an evolving one, research­ers have docu­mented more than 13 million annual misde­meanor cases in recent years. foot­note24_s91jziy 24 Steven­son and Mayson, “The Scale of Misde­meanor Justice,” 737; Alex­an­dra Natapoff, Punish­ment Without Crime (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 258. However, estim­at­ing the number of people with a misde­meanor convic­tion is a diffi­cult task. Convic­tion rates and even the mean­ing of a misde­meanor convic­tion vary from state to state. Some lower-level offenses will qual­ify as a misde­meanor in some states but not in others. foot­note25_sbolkwn 25 Steven­son and Mayson, “The Scale of Misde­meanor Justice,” 739–40.

To estim­ate annual misde­meanor convic­tions, then, this report employs a novel method that starts with FBI arrest data and then calcu­lates how many of those arrests ended in convic­tion, using convic­tion rates estim­ated from a longit­ud­inal survey.

Next, to avoid double count­ing people, the authors sought to estim­ate misde­meanor recidiv­ism. But recidiv­ism poses its own chal­lenge: unlike felony sentences and prison terms, people routinely receive multiple misde­meanor convic­tions within a single year. foot­note26_7g20z5d 26 The same is tech­nic­ally true of felony convic­tions not entail­ing impris­on­ment, but the offi­cial recidiv­ism data used in the report’s model adequately captures that risk. To solve this prob­lem, repeat jail admis­sions were used as a proxy for intra-year misde­meanor recidiv­ism. foot­note27_0pcb­mkp 27 See Anne C. Spauld­ing et al., “HIV/AIDS Among Inmates of and Releasees from US Correc­tional Facil­it­ies, 2006: Declin­ing Share of Epidemic but Persist­ent Public Health Oppor­tun­ity,” PLOS ONE 4, no. 11 (2009): table 2, https://journ­als.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007558. That figure — suggest­ing that the aver­age person admit­ted to a major-city jail is admit­ted roughly 1.4 times per year — was then used to estim­ate how many unique people were convicted of a misde­meanor in a given year. As in the preced­ing sections, estim­ated inter-year recidiv­ism and mortal­ity rates were then applied. Follow­ing this method, the authors estim­ate that nearly 46.8 million currently living people — one in seven Amer­ic­ans — have a misde­meanor convic­tion and, there­fore, a nontrivial crim­inal record.

This estim­ate comes with some limit­a­tions. For one thing, it likely includes people already coun­ted in previ­ous sections. That is, some of the 46.8 million people iden­ti­fied using this model may have also spent time in prison, or been convicted of a felony, before or after incur­ring their misde­meanor convic­tion. This double count­ing risk is unavoid­able. This model’s recidiv­ism metrics theor­et­ic­ally guard against double count­ing people who have been convicted of two misde­mean­ors but cannot, given the limits of exist­ing data, elim­in­ate people who have recidivated in other ways. Further­more, the authors were able to obtain enough data to run this model over only 23 years, from 1995 through 2017. Rates of actual intra-year recidiv­ism may also be higher than indic­ated by the limited research that was avail­able to build this model.

These limit­a­tions cannot be over­come given the signi­fic­ant gaps in data on the crim­inal justice system. Extens­ive original research, includ­ing large-scale data collec­tion, would be neces­sary to develop a more precise under­stand­ing of the number of people who have been convicted of a misde­meanor. Given these limit­a­tions, it might be better to under­stand the total offered in this report as a rough estim­ate, rather than a precise one: around 45 million people, rather than precisely 46.8 million people, have been convicted of a misde­meanor.

>> One signi­fic­ant group goes uncoun­ted in this analysis: people who have been detained or incar­cer­ated in a jail. Because jails process more than 10 million admis­sions annu­ally, the number of people who have been to jail at some point must be vast. foot­note28_khe5e1w 28 Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2017, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2019, 2, table 1, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbde­tail&iid=6547.

>> It is diffi­cult to estim­ate the size of this popu­la­tion, however. Part of the prob­lem is that jails serve two purposes: they detain people for short peri­ods as they wait for trial, and they incar­cer­ate people who have already been convicted of a crime — typic­ally a low-level one. Gener­ally, though, jail recidiv­ism data tracks only the latter group. foot­note29_ru7t5f9 29 See, e.g., “Hamp­den County Sher­riff’s Depart­ment: Research,” accessed Febru­ary 25, 2020, http://hcsdma.org/public-resources/research. Without a solid under­stand­ing of the rate at which people return to jail for any reason, a reas­on­able estim­ate of the formerly jailed popu­la­tion is impossible. This is espe­cially true given that 54 percent of the jail popu­la­tion turns over every week, magni­fy­ing the impact of any error in estim­at­ing recidiv­ism. foot­note30_zbn145p 30 Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2017, 8 table 8. One recent paper by the Prison Policy Initi­at­ive sought to bridge this gap using a medical data­set, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which tracks how many times someone has been “arres­ted and booked” in the year stud­ied. The paper concluded that 4.9 million unique people are arres­ted and jailed annu­ally. But as the authors concede, the data­set they used was not built with the justice system in mind. Alexi Jones and Wendy Sawyer, Arrest, Release, Repeat: How Police and Jails Are Misused to Respond to Social Prob­lems, Prison Policy Initi­at­ive, 2019, “Read About the Data,” https://www.pris­on­policy.org/reports/repea­tar­rests.html#meth­od­o­logy.

>> The length of a jail stay also varies sharply. While the aver­age jail stay is just 26 days, it is longer in larger juris­dic­tions such as New York City. foot­note31_olo6o42 31 Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2017, 8; and New York City Depart­ment of Correc­tion (here­in­after NYC DOC), “NYC Depart­ment of Correc­tion at a Glance: Inform­a­tion for the 12 Months of FY 2019,” accessed May 28, 2020, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/down­loads/press-release/DOC_At_Glance_FY2019_072319.pdf. And years-long jail stays are well docu­mented. foot­note32_qeqd­p50 32 See, e.g., Benjamin Weiser, “Kalief Browder’s Suicide Brought Changes to Rikers. Now It Has Led to a $3 Million Settle­ment,” New York Times, Janu­ary 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/24/nyre­gion/kalief-browder-settle­ment-lawsuit.html. As a result, it is diffi­cult to say that every­one who spends time in jail is affected in a similar way. Earn­ings loss and even job loss are certainly common exper­i­ences. foot­note33_4wworz4 33 Will Dobbie, Jacob Goldin, and Crys­tal S. Yang, “The Effects of Pretrial Deten­tion on Convic­tion, Future Crimes, and Employ­ment: Evid­ence from Randomly Assigned Judges,” Amer­ican Economic Review 108, no. 2 (2018): 201–40l, https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20161503; and Nick Pinto, “The Bail Trap,” New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html?_r=1. But longer-term effects and how they are distrib­uted are more complic­ated ques­tions.

>> Research conduc­ted for this report did allow the authors to conclude, on the basis of one import­ant case, that the number of people affected by jails is very large indeed. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the New York City Depart­ment of Correc­tion — which over­sees the Rikers Island jail complex — held an aver­age daily popu­la­tion of around 8,000 people and admit­ted around 40,000 annu­ally, down from more than 120,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2001. foot­note34_ufq9etx 34 NYC DOC, “NYC Depart­ment of Correc­tion at a Glance”; and NYC Open Data, “Inmate Admis­sions,” updated Febru­ary 1, 2020, https://data.city­ofnewyork.us/Public-Safety/Inmate-Admis­sions/6teu-xtgp. That means it held roughly 1 percent of the aver­age daily popu­la­tion of all the jails in Amer­ica. foot­note35_4ejug1n 35 Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2018, Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, 2020, 2, table 1, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ji18.pdf.

>> Accord­ing to data obtained through a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Law request, New York City’s Depart­ment of Correc­tion admit­ted 949,919 indi­vidu­als into custody between 1983 and June 14, 2019. foot­note36_330y9e9 36 Adjuwa Thomas, legal assist­ant, Legal Divi­sion, NYC DOC, email message to author, June 14, 2019. (A forth­com­ing study by a team of soci­olo­gists will explore the life­time risk of jail incar­cer­a­tion for New York­ers of differ­ent demo­graphic groups.) If New York City alone jailed nearly 1 million unique people over a 36-year period, then the number of people who have ever been incar­cer­ated in any jail must run into the tens of millions.

 

That said, none of these caveats under­cut this cent­ral find­ing: a surpris­ingly large number of Amer­ic­ans have a misde­meanor convic­tion, with (as this report will show) seri­ous consequences. Even if the misde­meanor popu­la­tion were half as high as is estim­ated here — in the 20 million range, for example, due to a higher than expec­ted rate of intra-year recidiv­ism — the total would remain shock­ing, and the policy implic­a­tions would be unchanged. Research on the misde­meanor system is in its earli­est phases. Hope­fully, this estim­ate will lead people to under­take the data collec­tion efforts needed to support further research and will be refined in future stud­ies.

This analysis offers a way of under­stand­ing the scale of mass incar­cer­a­tion in the United States that is more detailed than past research. Of the more than 70 million people with a crim­inal record today, tens of millions have exper­i­enced some of the most severe sanc­tions known to the crim­inal justice system — impris­on­ment or convic­tion of a felony. And tens of millions more must contend with the stigma of a misde­meanor convic­tion, which, while less severe, still harms one’s abil­ity to find a stable job.

>> Amer­ica’s sprawl­ing crim­inal justice system can affect someone’s life, directly or indir­ectly, in any number of ways. This report focuses on misde­meanor convic­tions, felony convic­tions, and impris­on­ment, presum­ing that these inter­ac­tions are likely to affect someone’s long-term earn­ings. Why, though, do convic­tion and impris­on­ment affect earn­ings? And why does impris­on­ment have a partic­u­larly strong effect? Research­ers have sugges­ted the follow­ing theor­ies, among others:

End Notes

II. The Effect of Conviction and Imprisonment on Annual Earnings

This report now eval­u­ates how the earn­ings of these three popu­la­tions are affected by involve­ment with the crim­inal justice system. Draw­ing on survey data, it finds that misde­meanor convic­tions are asso­ci­ated with a small earn­ings reduc­tion, felony convic­tions are asso­ci­ated with a moder­ate reduc­tion, and impris­on­ment is asso­ci­ated with a severe one. foot­note1_qnxqgjp 1 This report is not a cost-bene­fit analysis. However, its find­ings can be used by future research­ers to conduct a truly compre­hens­ive cost-bene­fit analysis of crim­inal justice policy, compar­ing the current state of mass incar­cer­a­tion to a specific, future reform proposal. Such an analysis would start by identi­fy­ing some “bene­fits” of mass incar­cer­a­tion, such as the inca­pa­cit­at­ing or deterrent effects of incar­cer­a­tion. While the effect at Amer­ica’s current level of incar­cer­a­tion is argu­ably marginal, incar­cer­a­tion could lower crime by inca­pa­cit­at­ing indi­vidu­als who engage in crime or deter­ring indi­vidu­als from crime. Next, those “bene­fits” would be set against the “costs” of mass incar­cer­a­tion — such as the impact of impris­on­ment on chil­dren and famil­ies, and the economic costs detailed in this report. For discus­sions of the inca­pa­cit­at­ive and deterrent effects of impris­on­ment, see Daniel Kessler and Steven D. Levitt, “Using Sentence Enhance­ments to Distin­guish Between Deterrence and Inca­pa­cit­a­tion,” Journal of Law and Econom­ics 42, no. S1 (1999): 343–64; Francesco Drago, Roberto Galbi­ati, and Pietro Vertova, “The Deterrent Effects of Prison: Evid­ence from a Natural Exper­i­ment,” Journal of Polit­ical Economy 117, no. 2 (2009): 257–80; and Emily G. Owens, “More Time, Less Crime? Estim­at­ing the Inca­pa­cit­at­ive Effect of Sentence Enhance­ments,” Journal of Law and Econom­ics 52, no. 3 (2009): 551–79. For an argu­ment that such effects are marginal given the high current rates of incar­cer­a­tion, see Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowl­ing, What Caused the Crime Decline?, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2015, 7, 21–27, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/what-caused-crime-decline.

Many research­ers have stud­ied the effect of incar­cer­a­tion on earn­ings. This report adds to that under­stand­ing by also estim­at­ing the effect of felony and misde­meanor convic­tions. First, this section estim­ates the effect of convic­tion and impris­on­ment on annual earn­ings. The next section explores how these effects add up over a life­time.

>> To produce these estim­ates, the authors drew on data from the National Longit­ud­inal Survey of Youth’s 1979 and 1997 cohorts (NLSY79 and NLSY97, respect­ively). They then used a stat­ist­ical tech­nique called propensity-score match­ing (PSM) to match people who have become involved with the crim­inal justice system with people who are compar­able to them in terms of certain key traits. Given a close enough match, the earn­ings differ­en­tial between justice-involved people and this compar­ison group can be attrib­uted to the effect of crim­inal justice involve­ment.

>> Specific­ally, for this report, people who became involved with the crim­inal justice system in early adult­hood (on aver­age, in their late teens or early twen­ties) were compared with people who had no such history but were similar in demo­graphic char­ac­ter­ist­ics (age, gender, race-ethni­city, and educa­tion) and regional indic­at­ors (unem­ploy­ment and poverty rates). foot­note2_fhrz4pb 2 The authors also sought to use geocode data, obtained under agree­ment with the Bureau of Labor Stat­ist­ics, to account for state rather than regional crim­inal justice vari­ables. Initial analyses using geocode data yiel­ded prom­ising results, indic­at­ing that impris­on­ment, felony convic­tion, and misde­meanor convic­tion were all asso­ci­ated with earn­ings loss. Due to its sens­it­ive nature, though, geocode data could be analyzed only on-site at the Bren­nan Center for Justice, which became an impossib­il­ity as work on this report was being final­ized during the Covid-19 pandemic in April and May 2020. As a result, the authors were unfor­tu­nately not able to incor­por­ate geocode data into the final models. The gap between the two groups’ annual earn­ings could then be explored.

>> Any study of the crim­inal justice system’s effects must reckon with the risk that there are deeper, unob­served differ­ences between those who become convicted or incar­cer­ated and those who do not. Indeed, research suggests that people who enter prison earned signi­fic­antly less than their peers prior to incar­cer­a­tion. foot­note3_1grk3ok 3 Adam Looney and Nich­olas Turner, Work and Oppor­tun­ity Before and After Incar­cer­a­tion, Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, 2018, 8, https://www.brook­ings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looney­in­car­cer­a­tion_final.pdf; Berna­dette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, Pris­ons of Poverty: Uncov­er­ing the Pre-Incar­cer­a­tion Incomes of the Imprisoned, Prison Policy Initi­at­ive, 2015, https://www.pris­on­policy.org/reports/income.html (analyz­ing Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Survey of Inmates in State Correc­tional Facil­it­ies, 2004, https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsr­web/NACJD/stud­ies/4572). To limit the effect of these unob­served traits, this report’s results were valid­ated using addi­tional stat­ist­ical tech­niques. For details on these approaches, see appendix B.

A. Formerly Imprisoned People
Estim­ate: 52 percent reduc­tion

This report estim­ates that formerly imprisoned people earn around $6,700 annu­ally, while their peers earn around $13,800. The latter figure is slightly less than what a full-time worker earn­ing the federal minimum wage would earn over the course of a year. foot­note4_hmehod9 4 Center for Poverty Research, “What Are the Annual Earn­ings for a Full-Time Minimum Wage Worker?,” Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia, Davis, last updated Janu­ary 12, 2018, https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-are-annual-earn­ings-full-time-minimum-wage-worker. The dispar­ity between the two groups trans­lates to an annual income reduc­tion of around 52 percent.

B. People with a Felony Convic­tion Not Sentenced to Impris­on­ment
Estim­ate: 22 percent reduc­tion

Felony convic­tions imply seri­ous crimes and have a signi­fic­ant effect on earn­ing poten­tial. But without impris­on­ment, the effect may be very differ­ent from the one felt by people return­ing home from prison. There­fore, this report presents a new model to estim­ate how a felony convic­tion, even without impris­on­ment, affects earn­ings.

Here the authors used the NLSY97, which specific­ally asked parti­cipants whether they had been convicted of a felony. foot­note5_ix8oruy 5 It is import­ant to acknow­ledge that this approach may intro­duce some meas­ure­ment error. While felony is a term of art in the legal world, it is possible that neither survey­ors nor parti­cipants under­stood the term with that same degree of preci­sion. As a result, parti­cipants may have under- or overre­por­ted felony involve­ment. While it is diffi­cult to determ­ine the effect of this survey meas­ure­ment error, under­re­port­ing of felony records may be more likely. See Bruce West­ern et al., “Study Reten­tion as Bias Reduc­tion in a Hard-to-Reach Popu­la­tion,” Proceed­ings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 20 (2016): 5477–85, https://www.pnas.org/content/113/20/5477. Study­ing this group of people using the PSM method (described in appendix B) suggests that felony convic­tions without impris­on­ment also have a signi­fic­ant effect on annual earn­ings: about a 22 percent reduc­tion.

The large effect iden­ti­fied here is consist­ent with theor­ies about how a crim­inal record affects earn­ing capa­city. People convicted of felon­ies may also be more likely to have spent time in pretrial deten­tion. As a result, it is possible that the 22 percent estim­ate described here includes the effect of pretrial deten­tion, which has also been linked to reduced earn­ings. foot­note6_4zzur3i 6 Dobbie, Goldin, and Yang, “The Effects of Pretrial Deten­tion,” 203–4.

C. People with a Misde­meanor Convic­tion
Estim­ate: 16 percent reduc­tion

Based on the same meth­od­o­logy, a non-felony convic­tion — assumed for the purposes of this analysis to be a misde­meanor convic­tion — reduces annual earn­ings by about 16 percent. As in the previ­ous section, time spent in pretrial deten­tion may partially account for this effect.

It may seem surpris­ing that a misde­meanor convic­tion would have such a signi­fic­ant impact on earn­ings. But research suggests that even misde­meanor arrests may lead to reduced employ­ment. foot­note7_r9inilh 7 Chris­topher Uggen et al., “The Edge of Stigma: An Exper­i­mental Audit of the Effects of Low-Level Crim­inal Records on Employ­ment,” Crim­in­o­logy 52, no. 4 (2014): 632–33, http://onlinelib­rary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745–9125.12051. Misde­meanor charges often entail pretrial deten­tion. Misde­meanor prosec­u­tions also increase the risk of future convic­tion and justice involve­ment, even when they do not end in convic­tion. Accord­ing to one scholar, even when a case ends in dismissal it allows prosec­utors to begin build­ing a file that will inform future inter­ac­tions with law enforce­ment. Thus, being charged with a misde­meanor, even if it does not end with convic­tion, may single someone out — or “mark” them — for closer scru­tiny during subsequent prosec­u­tions, poten­tially increas­ing the risk of convic­tion and, by exten­sion, lower­ing earn­ings. foot­note8_orlq5lm 8 See Kohler-Haus­mann, “Mana­gerial Justice,” 643–49, 668–70. For the policy rami­fic­a­tions of this “mark­ing” process, see Kohler-Haus­mann, “Mana­gerial Justice,” 690–92. For further devel­op­ment of this theory and a descrip­tion of how the misde­meanor system disrupts lives, see Issa Kohler-Haus­mann, Misde­mean­or­land (Prin­ceton, NJ: Prin­ceton Univer­sity Press, 2018). Taken together, these factors make it unsur­pris­ing that a misde­meanor convic­tion has some effect on earn­ings.

The nebu­lous nature of the misde­meanor category means that the misde­meanor effect likely varies signi­fic­antly from person to person and from charge to charge. For example, a convic­tion for driv­ing while intox­ic­ated likely affects someone’s earn­ings differ­ently from a convic­tion for simple assault — even though both are misde­mean­ors under New York State law. foot­note9_jhdha7t 9 N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law §§ 1192(2) & 1193(1)(b)(i) (prescrib­ing misde­meanor penal­ties for driv­ing with a blood alco­hol concen­tra­tion greater than 0.08); and N.Y. Penal Law § 120.00 (defin­ing simple assault as a misde­meanor).  But the aver­age effect described here helps develop our under­stand­ing of the effects of lower-level crim­inal justice involve­ment.

D. Aggreg­ate Annual Effects

Each of the estim­ates above describes annual earn­ings lost by an aver­age member of each group. These effects are keenly felt by formerly imprisoned or convicted people, their famil­ies, and their communit­ies. As the next section will demon­strate, these effects do not fade with time. They are exper­i­enced by people at all phases of their lives and careers.

Even in a single year, these lost earn­ings, in the aggreg­ate, consti­tute an enorm­ous sum of money. To quantify that loss, table 3 presents each annual earn­ings loss estim­ate from the preced­ing section, in dollars, and multi­plies it by the size of the group, as iden­ti­fied in section I.

For example, the aver­age formerly imprisoned person will earn 52 percent less than a simil­arly situ­ated person who was never imprisoned. From the previ­ous section, we know there are at least 7.7 million formerly imprisoned people in the United States. Apply­ing the aver­age earn­ings penalty to this entire group suggests that, in the aggreg­ate, formerly imprisoned people lose out on an estim­ated $55.2 billion annu­ally.

Assum­ing that people are not coun­ted twice in separ­ate categor­ies, then under­em­ploy­ment related to impris­on­ment or convic­tion reduces people’s wages by as much as $372.3 billion annu­ally. Because incar­cer­a­tion and crim­inal justice involve­ment already dispro­por­tion­ately ensnare poor communit­ies, this sum repres­ents money that largely goes unearned and unin­ves­ted in communit­ies that need it most. For context, consider what $372.3 billion would be enough to do:

The losses described in this report are, first and fore­most, felt by impacted indi­vidu­als and their communit­ies. But given the scale of these losses, there are macroe­co­nomic implic­a­tions as well. Indeed, other research­ers, using differ­ent meth­ods and study­ing differ­ent metrics, have argued that mass incar­cer­a­tion has a broad economic impact. For example, accord­ing to soci­olo­gists Bruce West­ern and Becky Pettit, much of the damage caused by over­in­car­cer­a­tion “is invis­ible in stand­ard data sources” because “prison and jail inmates have no status in offi­cial employ­ment stat­ist­ics.” In a 2000 study, they attemp­ted to correct this omis­sion and found that account­ing for incar­cer­ated persons reduced the employ­ment-to-popu­la­tion ratio of Black men more than white men. foot­note14_ik3oqol 14 See Bruce West­ern and Becky Pettit, “Incar­cer­a­tion and Racial Inequal­ity in Men’s Employ­ment,” ILR Review 54 (2000): 11–13. Build­ing on their find­ings, in 2016 the Wash­ing­ton Post repor­ted that, after account­ing for incar­cer­a­tion, the unem­ploy­ment rate for Black work­ing-age men in 2014 was 7.2 percent­age points higher than offi­cially repor­ted. foot­note15_5uy59c7 15 Jeff Guo, “Amer­ica Has Locked Up So Many Black People It Has Warped Our Sense of Real­ity,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Febru­ary 26, 2016, https://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/amer­ica-has-locked-up-so-many-black-people. This report adds to the evid­ence of mass incar­cer­a­tion’s soci­ety-wide collat­eral costs.

>> Theor­et­ic­ally, the economic impact of impris­on­ment might be mitig­ated by oppor­tun­it­ies to work while imprisoned. Skills learned through prison labor might offset the loss of what econom­ists call “human capital” behind bars, and earn­ings might help people amass savings to help them begin new lives after release.

>> The real­ity is very differ­ent. First, wages from prison labor do not come anywhere close to repla­cing what people can earn outside of prison. If any pay is offered at all, it is gener­ally low — around $1 per hour. foot­note16_iqr2gcq 16 Wendy Sawyer, “How Much Do Incar­cer­ated People Earn in Each State?,” Prison Policy Initi­at­ive, April 10, 2017, https://www.pris­on­policy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages. Many juris­dic­tions then deduct costs from that paycheck, whether to satisfy court fees and fines or to pay fees asso­ci­ated with impris­on­ment, such as room and board (that is, the cost of someone’s own incar­cer­a­tion). foot­note17_3qcp39d 17 See Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “Paying for Your Time: How Char­ging Inmates Fees Behind Bars May Viol­ate the Excess­ive Fines Clause,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 15 (2014): 321–28; and Sawyer, “How Much Do Incar­cer­ated People Earn in Each State?” Such deduc­tions are permit­ted even in better-paying federal programs. See Prison Industry Enhance­ment Certi­fic­a­tion Program Guideline, 64 Fed. Reg. 17000, 17011 (April 7, 1999). Some pris­ons also recoup the wages they pay through marked-up commis­sary products. foot­note18_no1oni1 18 See, e.g., Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Inside Private Pris­ons: An Amer­ican Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incar­cer­a­tion (New York: Columbia Univer­sity Press, 2018), 73–78. Prison program­ming could help people retain and develop skills, but there is little evid­ence that current programs provide those bene­fits. foot­note19_us9y0sh 19 For a recent discus­sion of this prob­lem, see James M. Byrne, The Effect­ive­ness of Prison Program­ming: A Review of the Research Liter­at­ure Examin­ing the Impact of Federal, State, and Local Inmate Program­ming on Post-Release Recidivism, First Step Act Inde­pend­ent Review Commit­tee, 2019, 15, https://first­stepact-irc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/IRC-Effect­ive­ness-of-Prison-Program­ming.pdf.

 

The find­ings here suggest that impris­on­ment remains a major driver of economic loss, severely depress­ing the earn­ings of those affected by it. But it is not the only factor. Roughly two-thirds of the aggreg­ate $372.3 billion loss iden­ti­fied here is the result of misde­meanor convic­tions. The reper­cus­sions of even a relat­ively minor crim­inal record repres­ent a seri­ous drain on earn­ings, and top-to-bottom reform is neces­sary to blunt this effect.

End Notes

III. The Effect of Conviction and Imprisonment on Lifetime Earnings

Annual lost earn­ings are a help­ful metric for analyz­ing the macroe­co­nomic impact of mass incar­cer­a­tion. But for people living through the effects of a crim­inal convic­tion or incar­cer­a­tion, these losses are most notable for how they compound annu­ally.

Build­ing on the last section’s analysis of annual lost earn­ings, this section presents a life­time analysis, show­ing that formerly imprisoned people earn less than half of what their peers earn over their careers. As shown in figure 2, the value of these lost earn­ings for formerly imprisoned people approaches half a million dollars per person, an amount that could easily make the differ­ence between escap­able and ines­cap­able poverty.

PSM was again used to produce these find­ings. People with involve­ment in the justice system were again matched with highly similar people who had no such exper­i­ence.

This section’s analysis defines the cohort’s prime work­ing years as running from their twen­ties to fifties, because earn­ings growth is typic­ally most stable over this period. For simpli­city, when describ­ing results, this 30-year period is divided into three stages, based on the aver­age age of NLSY parti­cipants in the sample in each stage: early career (ages 25–34), mid career (35–44), and late career (45+). Due to data limit­a­tions, this section does not distin­guish between misde­meanor and felony convic­tions. foot­note1_hyu0s2n 1 There are two addi­tional data limit­a­tions worth mention­ing. First, there is no guar­an­tee that an early-adult­hood exper­i­ence of incar­cer­a­tion or convic­tion is the only justice involve­ment an indi­vidual might exper­i­ence before the prime work­ing years. In this sense, the results presen­ted in this report should be inter­preted as the effects of early-adult convic­tion or incar­cer­a­tion on life­time earn­ings traject­or­ies, not condi­tional on future recidiv­ism. Second, because this analysis stud­ies the effect of a self-repor­ted convic­tion, it carries a risk of meas­ure­ment error. Some survey respond­ents may have under­stood the term convic­tion differ­ently, for example, and either under- or overre­por­ted their exper­i­ence with the crim­inal justice system.

The damage done by convic­tion alone is signi­fic­ant. Over the course of a life­time, cumu­lat­ive earn­ings losses reach nearly $100,000 for the aver­age person with a convic­tion. These results pale in compar­ison to the effect of impris­on­ment, however. By the end of a career, someone who was imprisoned as a young adult — regard­less of what offense led to incar­cer­a­tion — suffers an aver­age of about $484,400 in lost earn­ings.

A. Consequences for Poverty and Income Inequal­ity

Some research­ers have argued that the effects of a crim­inal record are “eternal,” due to the preval­ence of law enforce­ment and screen­ing data­bases. foot­note2_k809h9p 2 See James Jacobs, The Eternal Crim­inal Record (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer­sity Press, 2015), 1–8 (“A crim­inal record is for life; there is no stat­ute of limit­a­tions.”). This report’s find­ings provide strong support for that claim. Over the long term, the effect of incar­cer­a­tion on earn­ings appears to grow as justice-involved people miss out on the wage growth their peers bene­fit from — a surpris­ing and troub­ling conclu­sion. As shown in figure 3, aver­age formerly imprisoned people will start their careers earn­ing roughly $7,100 less than their peers annu­ally, and end them trail­ing their peers by more than $20,000 annu­ally.

Socioeco­nomic disad­vant­age tends to compound itself, and that prin­ciple appears to be at work here. foot­note3_c8tr6fs 3 Econom­ist Raj Chetty and his colleagues identify five factors asso­ci­ated with lower intergen­er­a­tional mobil­ity — “segreg­a­tion, income inequal­ity, school qual­ity, social capital, and family struc­ture.” See Raj Chetty et al., “Where Is the Land of Oppor­tun­ity? The Geography of Intergen­er­a­tional Mobil­ity in the United States,” Quarterly Journal of Econom­ics 129, no. 4 (2014): 1557, 1603–20. Chetty has shown that child­hood inter­ven­tions can have a power­ful impact on adult earn­ing poten­tial — suggest­ing, conversely, that socioeco­nomic disad­vant­age can perpetu­ate itself. See Raj Chetty, Nath­aniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, “The Effects of Expos­ure to Better Neigh­bor­hoods on Chil­dren: New Evid­ence from the Moving to Oppor­tun­ity Exper­i­ment,” Amer­ican Economic Review 106, no. 4 (2016): 899–900. Gener­ally, as people progress in their career and gain exper­i­ence, they make more money, peak­ing in their late forties or early fifties. foot­note4_cd0m53w 4 Lam Thuy Vo, “Income for Young, Middle-Aged and Elderly Amer­ic­ans, in Two Graphs,” NPR, Octo­ber 23 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/10/11/162744378/aver­age-income-of-young-middle-aged-and-elderly-amer­ic­ans-in-two-graphs. Several mech­an­isms likely impede that growth for formerly imprisoned people. For one, a crim­inal history may make their career prospects more fragile. Jobs avail­able to them will often provide fewer oppor­tun­it­ies for earn­ings growth and career advance­ment; they may also be more vulner­able to layoffs. Oppor­tun­it­ies for licen­sure or creden­tial­ing (and the higher income both can bring) are also limited and may provide weaker returns on invest­ment. Some profes­sional licenses and creden­tials are off-limits to people who have spent time in prison; in other cases, since jobs in general are harder to come by for formerly justice-involved people, those creden­tials do not always trans­late to higher pay.

Previ­ous research provides strong evid­ence that these mech­an­isms are at work. First, 45 percent of formerly imprisoned people are unem­ployed during the entire year follow­ing their release. foot­note5_dndsbht 5 Looney and Turner, Work and Oppor­tun­ity, 1 (find­ing that 45 percent of formerly incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als report zero earn­ings for the full first calen­dar year after their release). Unem­ploy­ment becomes a spiral, depriving people of oppor­tun­it­ies to develop skills and weak­en­ing their connec­tions to poten­tial employ­ers. foot­note6_a4elsym 6 Bruce West­ern, Jeffrey R. Kling, and David F. Weiman, “The Labor Market Consequences of Incar­cer­a­tion,” Crime & Delin­quency 47 (2001): 412–13, https://journ­als.sage­pub.com/doi/10.1177/0011128701047003007. Addi­tion­ally, when work is secured, it is often tempor­ary, part-time, and low paying; in one study of people released from Indi­ana pris­ons, about half of those who did find post-release employ­ment had an annual income of less than $5,000. foot­note7_qdab8uw 7 John Nally et al., “The Margin­ally Employed Offender: A Unique Phenomenon Among Released Offend­ers,” Journal of Correc­tional Educa­tion 64 (2013): 50–54, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26507530.pdf?seq=1. Such low-wage jobs tend to be char­ac­ter­ized by less upward mobil­ity and a higher risk of future unem­ploy­ment. foot­note8_y8l7uh2 8 Todd Gabe, Jaison R. Abel, and Richard Flor­ida, Can Low-Wage Work­ers Find Better Jobs?, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2018, 3, 18, https://www.newyorkfed.org/medi­al­ib­rary/media/research/staff_reports/sr846.pdf (find­ing that only 5.2 percent of people in low-wage jobs move up the job ladder). Crim­inal records, in other words, trap formerly imprisoned people in low-paying work, which in turn places them on a lower income-growth traject­ory.

Notably, these find­ings suggest that earn­ings losses among the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion may not be due entirely to the prison exper­i­ence itself or the time spent removed from the work­force. Instead, at least part of the earn­ings gap can be ascribed to the shadow that impris­on­ment casts over subsequent economic oppor­tun­it­ies. This distinc­tion has seri­ous consequences for poli­cy­makers, which are discussed in section IV.

This report’s results are also consist­ent with research on intract­able “deep poverty,” a chronic form of poverty that tends to persist gener­a­tion after gener­a­tion. foot­note9_toj5u60 9 Center for Poverty Research, “What Is ‘Deep Pover­ty’?,” Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia, Davis, last updated Janu­ary, 16, 2018, https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/what-deep-poverty. As shown in figure 3, above, the aver­age early-career wages of formerly imprisoned people hover at around half of the federal poverty threshold for a family of two. Indeed, they never exceed it. foot­note10_wllu62i 10 Based on the 2017 poverty threshold for a family of two with zero minor chil­dren ($16,414). U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty Thresholds,” last accessed July 29, 2020, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/histor­ical-poverty-thresholds.html.

The life­time effects of this earn­ings loss are stag­ger­ing. The roughly half-million dollars lost by the aver­age formerly imprisoned person is more than the entire life­time earn­ings of someone who spends his or her life at the poverty line ($382,000). foot­note11_8mys6qz 11 Based on the 2017 poverty threshold for a one-person house­hold ($12,752). U.S. Census Bureau, “Poverty Thresholds.” And this loss does not account for missed oppor­tun­it­ies for addi­tional wealth gener­a­tion, from Social Secur­ity bene­fits to accrued interest on retire­ment accounts to forgone invest­ment oppor­tun­it­ies. These factors, taken together, demon­strate that impris­on­ment sets up people who are already disad­vant­aged for a profound loss of wealth and closes off path­ways to upward economic mobil­ity.

B. Consequences for Racial Inequal­ity

This report has already shown that Black and Latino people are overrep­res­en­ted in the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion. It appears that their long-term earn­ing poten­tial is also more deeply affected by impris­on­ment. As shown in figure 4, white people who have exper­i­enced prison earn signi­fic­antly more annu­ally than Black or Latino people with similar histor­ies.

Formerly imprisoned Black and Latino people suffer greater life­time earn­ings losses — $358,900 and $511,500, respect­ively — than their white coun­ter­parts, whose losses amount to $267,000. Given the overrep­res­ent­a­tion of Black and Latino people among the formerly imprisoned popu­la­tion, these find­ings suggest that the Amer­ican prison system has a profoundly negat­ive impact on Black and Latino wealth. Of course, there is already a vast racial wealth gap that has persisted with little change over the past 50 years. foot­note12_bicp28y 12 Aliprantis and Carroll, What Is Behind the Persist­ence of the Racial Wealth Gap?. See also Darity et al., What We Get Wrong About Clos­ing the Racial Wealth Gap. In 2016, the median wealth of white famil­ies ($171,000) exceeded the median wealth of Black famil­ies ($17,409) and Latino famil­ies ($20,920) by factors of around 10 and 8, respect­ively. foot­note13_306j9hz 13 Serena Lei, “Nine Charts About Wealth Inequal­ity in Amer­ica,” Urban Insti­tute, 2017, http://apps.urban.org/features/wealth-inequal­ity-charts (click “Show Median” under the chart “Aver­age Family Wealth by Race/Ethni­city, 1963–2016”). Contin­ued dispar­it­ies in yearly earn­ing power — like the ones iden­ti­fied in this report — likely exacer­bate that gap. foot­note14_9r8087m 14 Lei, “Nine Charts,” 5. Other research suggests that low wealth is itself asso­ci­ated with an increase in impris­on­ment, poten­tially setting up a vicious cycle in which crim­inal justice involve­ment perpetu­ates wealth dispar­ity, which in turn raises the risk of impris­on­ment. foot­note15_nbo8f9i 15 Khaing Zaw et al., “Race, Wealth and Incar­cer­a­tion: Results from the National Longit­ud­inal Survey of Youth,” Race and Social Prob­lems 8 (2016): 111–12, https://www.pris­on­policy.org/scans/weal­thrace­in­car­cer­a­tion­rates.pdf.

Last, this report’s estim­ates suggest that, for those who are other­wise socioeco­nom­ic­ally similar, Black men and women with no history of convic­tion or impris­on­ment earn less than white men and women with a convic­tion record. By the end of a career, as shown in figure 5, white men and women with a convic­tion earn about $49,000 a year on aver­age, eclipsing the $39,000 a year that Black people with no convic­tion earn over the same period. These find­ings corrob­or­ate conclu­sions first drawn by soci­olo­gist Devah Pager. As she wrote, “race contin­ues to play a domin­ant role in shap­ing employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies, equal to or greater than the impact of a crim­inal record.” foot­note16_471s2ci 16 Pager, “The Mark of a Crim­inal Record,” 937, 958.

Apart from the effects of justice involve­ment, racial discrim­in­a­tion in general contin­ues to contrib­ute to earn­ings dispar­it­ies. While ending mass incar­cer­a­tion is crit­ic­ally import­ant to recti­fy­ing these dispar­it­ies, it cannot by itself resolve them.

End Notes

IV. Policy Recommendations

This report demon­strates that the effects of convic­tion and impris­on­ment persist for decades, entrench­ing inequal­ity and perpetu­at­ing poverty. Even people convicted of minor offenses see their earn­ing poten­tial reduced. Because poor people are more likely to become involved in the crim­inal justice system in the first place, convic­tion and incar­cer­a­tion can all too easily become poverty traps. Policy inter­ven­tions are needed to help break that cycle — and to effect trans­form­at­ive change.

A. States should reduce penal­ties, reclas­sify some felon­ies as misde­mean­ors, and decrim­in­al­ize other offenses alto­gether.

Even minor convic­tions appear to entail long-term economic harm. Confront­ing this prob­lem requires shrink­ing every aspect of the crim­inal justice system — from pris­ons to misde­meanor courts. Some states have made progress toward this goal through felony reclas­si­fic­a­tion, redu­cing some felony crimes to misde­mean­ors. foot­note1_c9mi­wu6 1 A large-scale reclas­si­fic­a­tion effort in Cali­for­nia — Propos­i­tion 47 — had no effect on viol­ent crime rates, and it reduced recidiv­ism rates; however, it may have had a weak effect on the larceny rate, which increased slightly. Mia Bird et al., The Impact of Propos­i­tion 47 on Crime and Recidiv­ism, Public Policy Insti­tute of Cali­for­nia, 2018, 3, https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/r_0618mbr.pdf. For a discus­sion of broader reclas­si­fic­a­tion efforts, see Brian Elder­b­room and Julia Durnan, Reclas­si­fied: State Drug Law Reforms to Reduce Felony Convic­tions and Increase Second Chances, Urban Insti­tute, 2018, https://www.urban.org/research/public­a­tion/reclas­si­fied. Other offenses can be safely decrim­in­al­ized entirely, mean­ing that they would be handled (if at all) outside the crim­inal justice system. foot­note2_6pxw3l5 2 Many states have begun to decrim­in­al­ize marijuana, for example. NORML, “Decrim­in­al­iz­a­tion,” accessed Febru­ary 24, 2020, https://norml.org/about­marijuana/item/states-that-have-decrim­in­al­ized. The Covid-19 public health crisis has already inspired many police depart­ments to tempor­ar­ily rethink who is arres­ted and why. foot­note3_b3q3b43 3 Sixty-five percent of agen­cies that respon­ded to a survey noted that the jail or correc­tional facil­ity that processes arrestees had already restric­ted the types of arrestees it would receive because of Covid-19. Cynthia Lum, Carl Maupin, and Megan Stoltz, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Law Enforce­ment Agen­cies (Wave 1),” Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Chiefs of Police and the Center for Evid­ence-Based Crime Policy, 2020, 1, https://www.thei­acp.org/sites/default/files/IACP-GMU%20Sur­vey.pdf. For an example, see Fort Worth’s exper­i­ence, described in Nich­ole Manna, “Fort Worth Police Will Give Cita­tions for Low-Level Crimes Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” Fort Worth Star-Tele­gram, March 18, 2020, https://www.star-tele­gram.com/news/coronavirus/article241254951.html. Look­ing beyond the pandemic, broader decrim­in­al­iz­a­tion efforts — target­ing misde­mean­ors and infrac­tions for resol­u­tion outside the crim­inal justice system or, at a minimum, elim­in­at­ing arrests and jail time for them — can preserve public safety while redu­cing the collat­eral costs this report iden­ti­fies. foot­note4_knxwqr2 4 For examples and a discus­sion of decrim­in­al­iz­a­tion, see Alex­an­dra Natapoff, “Misde­meanor Decrim­in­al­iz­a­tion,” Vander­bilt Law Review 68, no. 4 (2015): 1067–77.

B. Juris­dic­tions should invest in paths away from arrest and prosec­u­tion.

Provid­ing early off-ramps from the crim­inal justice system can spare people the effects of incar­cer­a­tion and convic­tion and shrink the size of the justice system. Pre-arrest diver­sion programs accom­plish these goals by identi­fy­ing people who might be arres­ted and inter­ven­ing in other ways, such as by connect­ing them with drug or mental health treat­ment. foot­note5_97d4fby 5 For examples, see Law Enforce­ment Lead­ers to Reduce Crime & Incar­cer­a­tion, Ensur­ing Justice and Public Safety: Federal Crim­inal Justice Prior­it­ies for 2020 and Beyond, 2020, 8–10, http://lawen­force­mentlead­ers.org/ensur­ing-justice-public-safety-federal-crim­inal-justice-prior­it­ies-for-2020-and-beyond. Some such programs embed social work­ers or clini­cians with police so that these profes­sion­als can respond imme­di­ately where neces­sary. foot­note6_rx9r­rbz 6 See Advoc­ates, Advoc­ates Jail Diver­sion Program: A Step-by-Step Toolkit, 8–10, https://mn.gov/dhs/assets/czech-advoc­ates-jds-manual-12_tcm1053–256994.pdf. Other diver­sion programs work by identi­fy­ing people who may be charged with certain types of crimes, offer­ing altern­at­ive resol­u­tion options and dismiss­ing crim­inal charges upon their success­ful comple­tion. foot­note7_a2munty 7 For one example, see Center for Court Innov­a­tion, “Project Reset,” 2019, https://www.cour­tin­nov­a­tion.org/sites/default/files/media/docu­ment/2019/PR_FactSheet_07232019.pdf; and Center for Court Innov­a­tion, “Project Reset,” accessed Febru­ary 24, 2020, https://www.cour­tin­nov­a­tion.org/programs/project-reset/more-info. Expand­ing these programs would help reduce the number of people with convic­tion records of any type. Crit­ic­ally, poli­cy­makers should also ensure that success­fully complet­ing a diver­sion program seals or expunges all record of the inter­ac­tion, since even dismissed cases can, in some circum­stances, remain a part of someone’s court records and encour­age prosec­utors and judges to be less leni­ent in future cases. foot­note8_lkjyqo3 8 Kohler-Haus­mann, “Mana­gerial Justice,” 649, 668–70.

C. Poli­cy­makers should expand the use of altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion.

Impris­on­ment creates and deep­ens economic disad­vant­age. Judges and prosec­utors should be given tools that allow them to impose noncar­ceral sanc­tions that better meet the needs of people who enter their courtrooms. Proba­tion, drug treat­ment, community service, coun­sel­ing, and even fines tailored to a person’s abil­ity to pay are more appro­pri­ate than prison in many situ­ations and allow people to avoid the long-term consequences of impris­on­ment. foot­note9_hqx1j04 9 Lauren-Brooke Eisen et al., How Many Amer­ic­ans Are Unne­ces­sar­ily Incar­cer­ated?, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2016, 23, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/how-many-amer­ic­ans-are-unne­ces­sar­ily-incar­cer­ated. But all such altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion (ATIs) must be imple­men­ted with care. Some diver­sion programs come with a price tag, trap­ping defend­ants who are unable to pay in the very cycle of poverty and incar­cer­a­tion that ATIs are designed to prevent. foot­note10_ce2549m 10 Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren, “After a Crime, the Price of a Second Chance,” New York Times, Decem­ber 12, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/us/crime-crim­inal-justice-reform-diver­sion.html.  Further­more, people sentenced to an ATI gener­ally still exit the courtroom with a crim­inal convic­tion, a seri­ous sanc­tion that will still depress their earn­ing poten­tial.

D. States should elim­in­ate unne­ces­sary barri­ers to employ­ment.

Nearly 30 percent of work­ers need a state license to prac­tice their occu­pa­tions. These policies hinder job growth and limit oppor­tun­it­ies for people with crim­inal records. foot­note11_w4ef2f9 11 Brad Hersh­bein, David Boddy, and Melissa S. Kear­ney, “Nearly 30 Percent of Work­ers in the U.S. Need a License to Perform Their Job: It Is Time to Exam­ine Occu­pa­tional Licens­ing Prac­tices,” The Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, Janu­ary 27, 2015, https://www.brook­ings.edu/blog/occu­pa­tional-licens­ing-prac­tices; and Morris M. Kleiner, Reform­ing Occu­pa­tional Licens­ing Policies, The Hamilton Project, 2015, 6, https://www.brook­ings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/THP_Kleiner­Dis­cPa­per_final.pdf. States have imposed at least 12,000 licens­ing restric­tions on indi­vidu­als with a felony record, and 6,000 on people with a misde­meanor record. foot­note12_m2dkzk4 12 Rodrig­uez and Avery, Unli­censed & Untapped, 1. By remov­ing these barri­ers, occu­pa­tional licens­ing reform would open up a broader array of jobs to people with crim­inal records. First, blanket bans — auto­matic disqual­i­fic­a­tion for indi­vidu­als with a crim­inal record — should be repealed. foot­note13_6ki1b2f 13 Rodrig­uez and Avery, Unli­censed & Untapped, 10–14. Second, poli­cy­makers and licens­ing bodies should remove vague and over­broad stand­ards, such as “good moral char­ac­ter,” from qual­i­fic­a­tion lists. foot­note14_y50f30w 14 Jonathan Haggerty, How Occu­pa­tional Licens­ing Laws Harm Public Safety and the Formerly Incar­cer­ated, R Street Insti­tute, 2018, https://www.rstreet.org/2018/05/31/how-occu­pa­tional-licens­ing-laws-harm-public-safety-and-the-formerly-incar­cer­ated. And third, regu­lat­ors should provide clear guides to applic­ants about poten­tial barri­ers to licen­sure. foot­note15_2ksoqhz 15 Rodrig­uez and Avery, Unli­censed & Untapped, 2.

E. The private and public sectors should expand oppor­tun­it­ies for people return­ing to the work­force after convic­tion.

Job applic­a­tions frequently ask about an applic­ant’s crim­inal record up front, allow­ing employ­ers to screen out people with a record without meet­ing them or consid­er­ing their qual­i­fic­a­tions. Ban-the-box policies require employ­ers to remove such convic­tion inquir­ies from initial job applic­a­tions. Records are disclosed later in the hiring process — before a final decision is made, but after applic­ants have had a chance to advoc­ate for them­selves and explain their past.

These policies encour­age hiring managers to look at someone’s applic­a­tion holist­ic­ally. Many compan­ies — includ­ing some of the coun­try’s largest employ­ers — have banned the box on their own initi­at­ive. foot­note16_arduhyl 16 National Employ­ment Law Project, “Fact Sheet: ‘Ban the Box’ Is a Fair Chance for Work­ers with Records,” August 2017, https://www.nelp.org/wp-content/uploads/Ban-the-Box-Fair-Chance-Fact-Sheet.pdf. Cities, states, and the federal govern­ment have adop­ted similar policies for their own hiring and in some cases require it of the private sector as well. foot­note17_gcudkeb 17 Beth Avery, Ban the Box, National Employ­ment Law Project, 2019, 106, https://www.nelp.org/public­a­tion/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide; C. J. Ciara­mella, “Trump Will Sign Federal ‘Ban the Box’ Bill into Law as Part of Massive Spend­ing Bill,” Reason, Decem­ber 20, 2019, https://reason.com/2019/12/20/trump-will-sign-federal-ban-the-box-bill-into-law-as-part-of-massive-spend­ing-bill; and National Defense Author­iz­a­tion Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Pub. L. No. 116–92, § 1121–24, 133 Stat. 1605–15 (2020), https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1790. Early evid­ence is prom­ising, show­ing, for example, increased hiring in high-crime neigh­bor­hoods and increased public-sector hiring of people with crim­inal records. Other juris­dic­tions should adopt or expand ban-the-box policies. foot­note18_6d5tcyl 18 Some stud­ies find that ban-the-box rules may have unin­ten­ded negat­ive consequences for younger Black job seekers, such as an appar­ent increase in racial discrim­in­a­tion in hiring. But research by other experts — includ­ing one of the authors of this report, Terry-Ann Craigie — casts doubt on those conclu­sions. See Terry-Ann Craigie, “Ban the Box, Convic­tions, and Public Employ­ment,” Economic Inquiry 58 (2020): 442–43, https://onlinelib­rary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ecin.12837; and Phil Hernan­dez, “Ban-the-Box ‘Stat­ist­ical Discrim­in­a­tion’ Stud­ies Draw the Wrong Conclu­sions,” National Employ­ment Law Project, August 29, 2017, https://www.nelp.org/blog/ban-the-box-stat­ist­ical-discrim­in­a­tion-stud­ies-draw-the-wrong-conclu­sions. Indeed, there are several other possible explan­a­tions for the appar­ent decrease in the hiring of younger Black men. They include an increase in the hiring of older Black men, who are more likely to have crim­inal records, and the focus on private sector ban-the-box policies, which at the time of these stud­ies were in the early stages of imple­ment­a­tion. See Terry-Ann Craigie et al., letter to Hon. Elijah E. Cummings and Hon. Jim Jordan, March 25, 2019, Bren­nan Center for Justice, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/letter-support-fair-chance-act; and Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger, “ ‘Ban the Box’ Meas­ures Help High-Crime Neigh­bor­hoods” (Amer­ican Enter­prise Insti­tute Econom­ics Work­ing Paper #2016–08, 2020), https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Veuger-Shoag-Ban-the-box-WP-updated.pdf. (As of this report’s release date, Shoag and Veuger’s paper was slated for public­a­tion in the Journal of Law and Econom­ics.) Further, Craigie’s find­ings show that ban-the-box policies signi­fic­antly increase employ­ment for justice-involved people in the public sector. Craigie, “Ban the Box, Convic­tions, and Public Employ­ment,” 442–43.

F. Cities and states should prevent land­lords and employ­ers from discrim­in­at­ing against people with crim­inal records.

Even in ban-the-box juris­dic­tions, some employ­ers will auto­mat­ic­ally reject applic­ants once they learn of a crim­inal record. States should repeal laws that permit the blanket denial of jobs to people with a crim­inal record. foot­note19_br7d5x0 19 These policies already risk collid­ing with U.S. Equal Employ­ment Oppor­tun­ity Commis­sion (EEOC) guid­ance, which warns that overly broad rules target­ing justice-involved people create a dispar­ate racial impact and may viol­ate Title VII accord­ingly. See EEOC, “Enforce­ment Guid­ance on Consid­er­a­tion of Arrest and Convic­tion Records in Employ­ment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,” No. 915.002, April 25, 2012, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guid­ance/arrest_convic­tion.cfm. Retain­ing state law that conflicts with EEOC guid­ance argu­ably puts employ­ers in an unten­able situ­ation in which they must decide whether to comply with state law and risk an EEOC lawsuit, or comply with EEOC rules and ignore state law. See Timothy M. Cary, “A Checkered Past: When Title VII Collides with State Stat­utes Mandat­ing Crim­inal Back­ground Checks,” ABA Journal of Labor & Employ­ment Law 28 (2013): 499, 499–500, 517–21 (describ­ing the conflict and seek­ing to resolve it) and 509–12 (identi­fy­ing 14 states where this conflict was present at the time of writ­ing). They should also consider adopt­ing rules, like those in New York State, that make it illegal for employ­ers to turn away job applic­ants based solely on their crim­inal record. foot­note20_dflkjpy 20 See N.Y. Correc­tion Law § 752 (prohib­it­ing the denial of employ­ment or licen­sure based solely on a crim­inal convic­tion); see also Pick­er­ing v. Uptown Comm’s & Elec., 42 Misc.3d 1205(A), 2013 WL 6798521 (Sup.Ct., Queens County Dec.23, 2013) (summar­iz­ing the state of the law before deny­ing a motion to dismiss claim arguing that employer termin­ated employee based on crim­inal convic­tion without weigh­ing stat­utory factors). Under New York’s law, employ­ers may still consider crim­inal history, but only as part of a holistic inquiry, and they may only reject an applic­ant on the basis of a convic­tion for a specific, enumer­ated reason — such as if the convic­tion has a direct rela­tion­ship to the job, presents a licens­ing concern, or suggests a risk to the general public. foot­note21_ddx6egp 21 See, e.g., Levine v N.Y.C. Taxi & Limousine Comm’n, 136 A.D.3d 1037, 1039 (2d Dep’t 2016) (conclud­ing that the defend­ant Commis­sion reas­on­ably denied a license to oper­ate a for-hire vehicle to a person previ­ously convicted of crimes involving fraud, where the offense was “recent and seri­ous, and bore a direct rela­tion­ship to how he dealt with persons who hired him for services,” and revers­ing a grant of admin­is­trat­ive relief accord­ingly).

Some land­lords will also auto­mat­ic­ally deny a lease to people with a crim­inal record, contrib­ut­ing to an increased risk of home­less­ness among formerly justice-involved people. foot­note22_5dxuowk 22 See Lynn M. Clark, “Land­lord Atti­tudes Toward Rent­ing to Released Offend­ers,” Federal Proba­tion 71, no. 1 (2007), https://www.uscourts.gov/federal-proba­tion-journal/2007/06/land­lord-atti­tudes-toward-rent­ing-released-offend­ers; and Lucius Couloute, Nowhere to Go: Home­less­ness Among Formerly Incar­cer­ated People, Prison Policy Initi­at­ive, August 2018, https://www.pris­on­policy.org/reports/hous­ing.html. As with employ­ment, states and muni­cip­al­it­ies should pass laws to prohibit such discrim­in­a­tion. Seattle’s Fair Chance Hous­ing legis­la­tion of 2017, for example, prevents land­lords from unfairly reject­ing applic­ants based on justice involve­ment and prohib­its the use in advert­ising of language that categor­ic­ally excludes formerly justice-involved indi­vidu­als. foot­note23_we0jca0 23 Seattle Office for Civil Rights, “Fair Chance Hous­ing,” accessed Febru­ary 25, 2020, https://www.seattle.gov/civil­rights/civil-rights/fair-hous­ing/fair-chance-hous­ing.

G. Public hous­ing author­it­ies should relax or elim­in­ate rules that exclude people with a crim­inal record.

Public hous­ing is often the only afford­able option for people return­ing from prison, but many public hous­ing author­it­ies (PHAs), taking a cue from federal laws, exclude people with a crim­inal record. These rules often separ­ate famil­ies and make it impossible for people to return home. foot­note24_3eoe­b5m 24 John Bae et al., Coming Home: An Eval­u­ation of the New York City Hous­ing Author­ity’s Family Reentry Pilot Program, Vera Insti­tute of Justice, 2016, 7–8, https://www.vera.org/public­a­tions/coming-home-nycha-family-reentry-pilot-program-eval­u­ation. For more inform­a­tion on this subject, see National Law Hous­ing Project, An Afford­able Home on Reentry: Feder­ally Assisted Hous­ing and Previ­ously Incar­cer­ated Indi­vidu­als, 2018, https://www.nhlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Rentry-Manual-2018-FINALne.pdf.

PHAs should relax these rules. Some have begun doing so, with prom­ising results. Follow­ing a pilot program that saw low recidiv­ism and a major­ity of parti­cipants success­fully reach­ing other mile­stones, the New York City Hous­ing Author­ity now part­ners with reentry organ­iz­a­tions to help people with convic­tion records trans­ition into hous­ing. foot­note25_y6yyj8m 25 Sarah Gonza­lez, “New York Eases Rules for Formerly Incar­cer­ated to Visit Public Hous­ing,” WNYC News, April 21, 2017, https://www.wnyc.org/story/new-york-city-felon­ies-visit-family-public-hous­ing. For a formal study of the pilot program and results, see Bae et al., Coming Home, 13, 21. The program contin­ues to oper­ate success­fully. Yolanda John­son-Peter­kin, social worker at New York City Hous­ing Author­ity, voice­mail message to author, Decem­ber 3, 2019. Simil­arly, due to a recent policy change, a crim­inal convic­tion is no longer an auto­matic disqual­i­fic­a­tion for public hous­ing in New Orleans. foot­note26_1r89ror 26 Katy Reck­dahl, “Hous­ing Author­ity Elim­in­ates Ban of Ex-offend­ers,” Shel­ter­force, July 6, 2016, https://shel­ter­force.org/2016/07/06/hous­ing-author­ity-elim­in­ates-ban-of-ex-offend­ers; and Hous­ing Author­ity of New Orleans, “Adding Family Members with Crim­inal Back­grounds,” July 2019, http://www.hano.org/attach­ments/CBCFly­er­2019.pdf.

H. Correc­tions author­it­ies should proact­ively connect people to health-care bene­fits.

Justice-involved people exper­i­ence chronic health condi­tions, includ­ing substance-use disorders and mental illness, at higher rates than the general popu­la­tion. foot­note27_jxhr­gdt 27 Cloud, On Life Support, 5–10. Poor health increases the risk of job loss and unem­ploy­ment — effects surely felt by the justice-involved popu­la­tion. foot­note28_0xrcfmf 28 Anton­isse and Garfield, The Rela­tion­ship Between Work and Health, 2. There­fore, correc­tions offi­cials should ensure that people being released from jail or prison under­stand how to make use of services avail­able to them, includ­ing federal bene­fits and state-sponsored health insur­ance. foot­note29_rfhuprx 29 The Massachu­setts Depart­ment of Correc­tions part­ners with MassHealth to provide health insur­ance to people being released from prison. “Reentry Plan­ning,” Mass.gov, last accessed Febru­ary 25, 2020, https://www.mass.gov/service-details/reentry-plan­ning. Before their release, indi­vidu­als should be provided with all the docu­ment­a­tion neces­sary to access health-care bene­fits. foot­note30_4aoh7zf 30 Martha R. Plotkin and Alex Bland­ford, Crit­ical Connec­tions: Getting People Leav­ing Prison and Jail the Mental Health Care and Substance Abuse Treat­ment They Need, Coun­cil of State Govern­ments Justice Center, 2017, 75, https://files.csgjustice­cen­ter.org/crit­ical-connec­tions/Crit­ical-Connec­tions-Full-Report.pdf.

I. State and federal poli­cy­makers should expand the social safety net.

Govern­ment assist­ance programs are proven and effect­ive means of redu­cing poverty. foot­note31_aorygw6 31 For example, one study indic­ated that access to govern­ment bene­fits mater­i­ally reduced the poverty rate in New York City. See Sophie Collyer et al., The State of Poverty and Disad­vant­age in New York City, Robin Hood, 2020, 15, fig. 2, https://robin­hood.org/uploads/2020/02/PT_2019_ANNUAL_2.21.pdf. They may also reduce recidiv­ism by keep­ing people out of poverty and despair. foot­note32_jlgik2x 32 Crys­tal S. Yang, “Does Public Assist­ance Reduce Recidiv­ism?,” Amer­ican Economic Review 107 (2017): 554, http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/papers/pdf/Yang_920.pdf. A 1990s federal welfare reform law permits states to deny import­ant food and cash assist­ance bene­fits to people convicted of some drug offenses. foot­note33_jim5rbw 33 Personal Respons­ib­il­ity and Work Oppor­tun­ity Recon­cili­ation Act of 1996 § 115, codi­fied at 21 U.S.C. § 862a(a), (b). This provi­sion is an outdated and unne­ces­sar­ily punit­ive relic of the “war on drugs,” and Congress should repeal it outright.

Until Congress is poised to act, states should, as a stop­gap meas­ure, exer­cise their stat­utory right to opt out of the exclu­sion. foot­note34_bpcn6qb 34 States may opt out in whole or in part. 21 U.S.C. § 862a(d)(1)(A). Many have already done so, but around half still exclude some formerly justice-involved people from bene­fits. foot­note35_5bc1zc5 35 For inform­a­tion on state opt-outs, see Chester­field Polkey, “Most States Have Ended SNAP Ban for Convicted Drug Felons,” National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, July 30, 2019, https://www.ncsl.org/blog/2019/07/30/most-states-have-ended-snap-ban-for-convicted-drug-felons.aspx; Marc Mauer, A Life­time of Punish­ment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Bene­fits, The Senten­cing Project, 2015, 2, https://senten­cing­pro­ject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/A-Life­time-of-Punish­ment.pdf; and U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Food and Nutri­tion Service, SNAP State Options Report, 2018, 21, https://fns-prod.azur­eedge.net/sites/default/files/snap/14-State-Options.pdf. All states should opt out of the provi­sion in its entirety.

Correc­tional admin­is­trat­ors should also work with all levels of govern­ment to ensure that people being released from incar­cer­a­tion are connec­ted imme­di­ately with anti-poverty programs and bene­fits. As one example, New York City pree­mpt­ively enrolls people in the Supple­mental Nutri­tional Assist­ance Program (SNAP) as they approach their release from city jails, ensur­ing that they do not wait an unne­ces­sar­ily long time for food bene­fits. More juris­dic­tions should do the same. foot­note36_7w5f4al 36 Federal SNAP rules specific­ally exclude people who are in the care of public insti­tu­tions and receive a signi­fic­ant portion of their meals from those facil­it­ies. 7 C.F.R. § 273.1(b)(7)(vi). But many eligib­il­ity rules are regu­lat­ory rather than stat­utory, and a separ­ate federal regu­la­tion allows states to seek waivers that relax these rules. 7 C.F.R. § 272.3(c). New York City’s pre-enroll­ment program oper­ates under one such waiver. See Eliza­beth Wolko­mir, “How SNAP Can Better Serve the Formerly Incar­cer­ated,” Center on Budget and Policy Prior­it­ies, March 16, 2018, 6–8, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/3–6–18fa.pdf.

End Notes

V. Conclusion

More than 70 million Amer­ic­ans have a crim­inal record of some kind. This report is the first to demon­strate that more than half of them have at least one convic­tion for a misde­meanor or a more seri­ous crime. Nearly 8 million of them have been imprisoned at some point in their lives, test­a­ment to the sprawl­ing reach of incar­cer­a­tion.

This expos­ure to the crim­inal justice system, however long or however brief, carries consequences that extend far beyond a guilty plea, trial verdict, or release from prison. People who have been convicted of a crime can expect to earn at least 16 percent less, on aver­age, than their peers. And those who have been to prison will lose around half of their earn­ing poten­tial. Over the course of a life­time, that loss, on aver­age, approaches half a million dollars — easily the differ­ence between escap­able and ines­cap­able poverty.

These lost wages, in aggreg­ate, cost people touched by the crim­inal justice system more than $372 billion annu­ally. And this loss is not evenly distrib­uted. It is felt most keenly by Black and Latino communit­ies, which dispro­por­tion­ately lose their members and their wealth to incar­cer­a­tion and its effects.

Taken together, these find­ings demon­strate that ending mass incar­cer­a­tion is an economic imper­at­ive as much as a moral one. It is a vital step toward restor­ing prosper­ity to under­served communit­ies across the coun­try, and toward clos­ing the racial wealth gap.

About the Authors

Terry-Ann Craigie is the econom­ics fellow in the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program, where she works to docu­ment the economic and social costs of mass incar­cer­a­tion. Craigie is also an asso­ci­ate professor of econom­ics at Connecti­cut College, where her research exam­ines the collat­eral consequences of mass incar­cer­a­tion and the impact of ban-the-box policies on the employ­ment of those with crim­inal records. Prior to join­ing the Bren­nan Center, she was a visit­ing fellow at the Urban Insti­tute and a postdoc­toral research asso­ci­ate at Prin­ceton Univer­sity. She was selec­ted as a Self-Suffi­ciency Research Clear­ing­house Emer­ging Scholar in 2013. Craigie has published in journ­als such as East­ern Economic Journal, Future of Chil­dren, Journal of Ethni­city in Crim­inal Justice, Oxford Devel­op­ment Stud­ies, and Review of Black Polit­ical Economy. She has presen­ted her research at numer­ous confer­ences and seminars, most notably at the White House. She holds a BA magna cum laude in econom­ics from Stock­ton Univer­sity and an MA and a PhD in econom­ics from Michigan State Univer­sity.

Ames Grawert is senior coun­sel and John Neu Justice Coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. He leads the program’s quant­it­at­ive research team, focus­ing on trends in crime and poli­cing and the collat­eral costs of mass incar­cer­a­tion. Addi­tion­ally, he advoc­ates for crim­inal justice reform policies at the federal level. Previ­ously, Grawert served as an assist­ant district attor­ney in the Appeals Bureau of the Nassau County District Attor­ney’s Office, where he reviewed and litig­ated claims of actual inno­cence in addi­tion to his appel­late work. Before enter­ing public service, he was an asso­ci­ate at Mayer Brown LLP, where he repres­en­ted crim­inal defend­ants pro bono in post-convic­tion litig­a­tion.

Cameron Kimble is a senior research and program asso­ci­ate in the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. As a member of the program’s law and econom­ics research team, he supports the organ­iz­a­tion’s work to end mass incar­cer­a­tion and researches the rela­tion­ship between mass incar­cer­a­tion, wages, and economic inequal­ity. Prior to join­ing the Bren­nan Center, he worked as a quant­it­at­ive analyst at Progress­ive Insur­ance, where he was tasked with eval­u­at­ing and fore­cast­ing auto insur­ance industry and consumer trends. Kimble holds a BA in econom­ics from Miami Univer­sity.

Jamaal Barber is a creat­ive, imagin­at­ive soul who was born in Virginia and raised in Littleton, North Caro­lina. At a young age he was fascin­ated by the aesthetic images and vivid illus­tra­tions in chil­dren’s books and comic books. He soon star­ted creat­ing images of his own on the backs of his element­ary school text­books and on any other mater­ial that he could find. He finally answered the call to become an artist after read­ing about the legacy and life of Romare Bearden in high school. In 2013, after seeing a screen-print­ing demo at a local art store, Barber star­ted exper­i­ment­ing with print­mak­ing and made it his primary focus. His fine art can be seen on display in Atlanta at the ZuCot Gallery. Addi­tion­ally, Barber has done work for Black Art in Amer­ica, Emory Univer­sity, Twit­ter, and Random House. He is currently finish­ing his MFA in print­mak­ing at Geor­gia State Univer­sity.

Acknowledgments

The Bren­nan Center acknow­ledges Arnold Ventures’ founders Laura and John Arnold, Jason Flom, and The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Found­a­tion for their gener­ous support of our work. This public­a­tion was made possible in part through the support of Robin Hood, for which we are grate­ful. This is an inde­pend­ent Bren­nan Center public­a­tion; the opin­ions expressed are those of the authors and do not neces­sar­ily reflect the views of our support­ers.

The authors thank Steven Durlauf, Stan Veuger, and Bruce West­ern for review­ing a draft of this report and for their thought­ful feed­back on its find­ings and meth­od­o­logy. The authors also thank Alex­an­dra Natapoff for offer­ing her thoughts on the report’s misde­meanor find­ings, and James Austin and John Pfaff for their time discuss­ing the report’s popu­la­tion models.

This research was conduc­ted with restric­ted access to Bureau of Labor Stat­ist­ics (BLS) data. The views expressed here do not neces­sar­ily reflect the views of the BLS.

The authors thank Lauren-Brooke Eisen for her insight­ful comments on and care­ful revi­sions to the report; Michael Wald­man and John Kowal for their support of this research; James Cullen for his extens­ive work on a previ­ous draft of this report, which contin­ues to underly several of the report’s conclu­sions; and Inimai Chet­tiar for her concep­tion and early edit­ing of this project. They also thank Peter Miller for his input on the report’s quant­it­at­ive analysis; Adureh Onyek­were for her care­ful atten­tion to detail in fact-check­ing the report; Ruth Sangree for her contri­bu­tions to the policy recom­mend­a­tions section; and (in alpha­bet­ical order) Jessica Christy, Aliana Knoep­fler, Safeena Meck­lai, Lauren Seab­rooks, Stacey Strand, Vienna Thomp­kins, and Julia Udell for their research and draft­ing support. The authors are grate­ful to Matthew Fried­man, Oliver Roeder, Maria Barrera, and Anamika Das for their work on previ­ous drafts of this report. Last, the authors are also grate­ful to Lisa Benen­son, Jean­ine Chirlin, Yuliya Bas, Matt Harwood, Zachary Laub, Jeanne Park, Alex­an­dra Ringe, Derek Rosen­feld, and Alden Wallace for their thought­ful review of the report, commu­nic­a­tions assist­ance, and work ensur­ing the report’s success­ful launch.