Prisons and Poverty

by Reihan Salam

John Tierney once again demonstrates why he is one of America’s best journalists by skillfully addressing a subject of longstanding interest to me — the role of long prison sentences in exacerbating poverty:

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

No one denies that some people belong in prison. Mr. Harris, now 47, and his wife, 45, agree that in his early 20s he deserved to be there. But they don’t see what good was accomplished by keeping him there for two decades, and neither do most of the researchers who have been analyzing the prison boom.

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons hasquintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before. They remain inmates into middle age and old age, well beyond the peak age for crime, which is in the late teenage years — just when Mr. Harris first got into trouble.

And as Tierney explains, the social disorder created by mass incarceration — which has greatly contributed to family disruption in many high-poverty neighborhoods — might actually exacerbate crime:

Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, both at Villanova University, have found that while crime may initially decline in places that lock up more people, within a few years the rate rebounds and is even higher than before.

New York City’s continuing drop in crime in the past two decades may have occurred partly because it reduced its prison population in the 1990s and thereby avoided a subsequent rebound effect.

Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,” Dr. Liedka said.

Tierney’s excellent reporting to some extent reveals the limits of what we know about the impact of mass incarceration on poverty, yet one hopes that it will encourage more researchers and policymakers to attack the problem. Our collective intellectual failure to reckon with the twin challenges of mass incarceration and rising disability rates is an enormous problem that badly undermines our ability to fight entrenched poverty. It leads us to “solutions” that are unresponsive to the actual drivers of policy, yet which tend to enrich privileged incumbents, in the public and private sectors. 

I made a crude attempt to discuss this issue in a radio segment, part of which I’ve pasted below, early last year, and I’m grateful that Tierney gave this issue the sustained, careful attention it deserves:

Think about the roughly 600,000 ex-offenders who leave prison every year. They tend to live in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, where job opportunities are scarce. And in a slack labor market, employers are reluctant to hire them. Just listen to these findings from a Pew Economic Mobility Project report. Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent and yearly earnings by 40 percent. Lower earnings mean lower savings. Lower savings mean that ex-offenders rarely have the assets they need to climb the economic ladder.

Almost three million American kids have a currently incarcerated parent, and many more have an ex-offender parent. These children have to compete with the children of families that have never been touched by the prison system. It’s not surprising that they tend to struggle, and that many of the sons and brothers of ex-offenders wind up in prison themselves.

People often ask why America’s economy isn’t growing any faster. The real economic miracle is that we’re as rich as we are given the enormous destruction of human potential caused by mass incarceration.

The late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz argued that we’d be much better off if we shifted resources from prisons to police forces. By doing a better job of deterring crime, we could limit the collateral damage from excessive punishment. That one small change could do more for our economic future than almost any other reform.

When I think about how conservatives should think about domestic policy, this strikes me as a good place to start: who is living precariously outside of the economic mainstream and how can we bring them in? The goal is to draw on the talent and energy of all Americans, including those born into low-income households, to increase growth and to build a better future, etc. Earnest if not cloying.  

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.