04 October 2010

The Economic Impact Of Incarceration

What economic impact does an incarceration sentence have on the convicted defendant and his or her children?

Incarceration reduces former inmates’ earnings by 40 percent and limits their future economic mobility. . . . .[I]ncarceration is a powerful determinant of mobility for both former inmates and their children.


• Of the former inmates who were in the lowest fifth of the male earnings distribution in 1986, two-thirds remained on the bottom rung in 2006, twice the number of those who were not incarcerated.
• Only 2 percent of previously incarcerated men who started in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution made it to the top fifth 20 years later, compared to 15 percent of men who started at the bottom but were never incarcerated. . . .

• Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared with 4 percent).
• Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was the year before a father is incarcerated. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration.
• Both education and parental income are strong indicators of children’s future economic mobility. . . .

For the formerly incarcerated who had earnings in the bottom fifth, or quintile, of the distribution in 1986, two-thirds (67 percent) remained at the bottom of the earnings ladder 20 years later in 2006. By comparison, only one-third of men who were not incarcerated during that time frame remained stuck at the bottom. Moreover, the odds of moving from the bottom of the earnings distribution to the very top quintile were particularly low for offenders. They had only a 2 percent chance of making such a climb, compared with a 15 percent chance for those who had not served time behind bars.

This matters to a lot more people than it used to since "54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children (ages 0-17), including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers."

1 in every 28 children in America has a parent behind bars, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago . . . [there are] 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, equaling 1 in 100 adults. Up from 500,000 in 1980, this marks more than a 300 percent increase in the United States’ incarcerated population. . . . One in 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African American men. Today, more African American men aged 20 to 34 without a high school diploma or GED are behind bars (37 percent) than are employed (26 percent). . . . more than 2.7 million minor children now have a parent behind bars, or 1 in every 28. For African American children the number is 1 in 9, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.

Imprisoned parents were often important to their families economically prior to incarceration:

[M]ore than two-thirds of men admitted to prison had been employed. Almost half—44 percent—of parents held in state prisons lived with their children prior to incarceration, and more than half of imprisoned parents (52 percent of mothers and 54 percent of fathers) were the primary earners for their children.

Of course, this fact provides both a statistical tool that could be used to capture the economic impact of incarcerated parents and a policy tool to identify those families that face the most intense economic impacts of incarceration policies.

We know that 44% of the inmates don't have minor children, that another 31% of inmates have children but didn't live with them prior to incarceration, and that another 12% of inmates had children who they lived with prior to incarceration but weren't primary earners for their children prior to incarceration. Thus, only about 13% of inmates had minor children whom they lived with and for whom they were prior earners prior to incarceration. The impact of parental incarceration is presumably particularly great for their roughly 540,000 children.

The report does deny that increased incarceration rates have produced benefits but notes that "while expanded incarceration contributed to the drop in violent crime in the United States during the 1990s, research shows that having more prisoners accounted for only about 25 percent of the reduction, leaving the other 75 percent to be explained by better policing and a variety of other, less expensive factors."

Black high school dropouts are three and a half times as likely as white high school dropouts to be incarcerated, and white high school dropouts, in turn are twice as likely as Hispanic high school dropouts to be incarcerated. The myth of crime prone Hispanic immigrants is just that, a myth. Hispanic immigrants are much less likely to live lives of crime than native born individuals.

The low incarceration rate of Hispanic high school dropouts probably reflects immigration effects. Lots of people who would graduate from high school in the U.S. educational system do not do so in Mexico and other Latin American countries from which immigrants hail, and the decision to emigrate to the United States tends to distinguish ambitious, employment oriented individuals from high school dropouts who lack initiative or aren't interested in making a living through employment. The Latin American high school dropouts who were on a path to incarceration probably weren't bothered to go to the trouble of trying to come to the United States, and Hispanics who are high school dropouts are disproportionately foreign born immigrants.

But, it is much harder to find a reason for the difference between the incarceration rate of black high school dropouts and white high school dropouts that doesn't involve some kind of institutional racism. Members of both groups are native born academic failures. And, there is considerable evidence that race does influence exercises of discretion at all points in the criminal justice process from arrest to charging decisions by prosecutors to conviction rates in jury trials to sentencing decisions by judges.

Causation, of course, is always a tricky issue. Maybe some of the failures that felons experience in the job market are a product of character traits that sent them to prison rather than the punishment itself. Maybe some of the problems that their children experience have more to do with inheriting traits that put them at high risk for disruptive behavior and failure in school rather than the reduced economic circumstances they experience. The best one can do is to try to parse out the efforts statistically, but because they so often appear together, that isn't easy. There are few really good control groups.

Two studies cited by the report do show "substantial" effects attributable specifically to incarceration as opposed to arrest or conviction.

The report cited in the post identifies policies that can improve the economic prospects of excons and their children.

The report's main recommendations are:

• Proactively reconnect former inmates to the labor market through education and training, job search and placement support and follow-up services to help former inmates stay employed.

• Enhance former inmates’ economic condition and make work pay by capping the percent of an offenders’ income subject to deductions for unpaid debts (such as court-ordered fines and fees), and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to include non-custodial, low-income parents.

• Screen and sort people convicted of crimes by the risks they pose to society, diverting lower-risk offenders into high-quality, community-based mandatory supervision programs.

• Use earned-time credits, a proven model that offers selected inmates a shortened prison stay if they complete educational, vocational or rehabilitation programs that boost their chances of successful reentry into the community and the labor market.

• Provide funding incentives to corrections agencies and programs that succeed in reducing crime and increasing employment.

• Use swift and certain sanctions other than prison, such as short but immediate weekend jail stays, to punish probation and parole violations, holding offenders accountable while allowing them to keep their jobs.

Even if the determination is that it is not appropriate to change incarceration practices, or re-entry programs at all as a result of the impact that incarceration has on the children of imprisoned parents, it may be appropriate to look at ways to give those children breaks that their parents have denied them.

On my "to do" list is to look at the impact that incarceration has on how many children someone has, and the data from this study is probably sufficient to figure this out. My intuition is that more than 54% of people comparable in age to incarcerated individuals have children, but it shouldn't be too hard to find the numbers to clarify this point.

It would be even more interesting to know how prior incarceration impacts non-economic outcomes like marriage rates and number of children born after incarceration, but that information probably can't be determined from the information in this study.

Those are the data that an evolutionary biologists would be interested in looking at in evaluating the impact of the criminal justice system. I certainly do not propose a eugenic approach to guide policy making in this area, but it would be worth determining what kind of impact that status quo does have in fact.

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