The Agenda

Mike Konczal on the Incarceration Problem

One area where Mike Konczal and I agree very strongly is that mass incarceration has done grievous harm to the economic well-being of the U.S., leaving aside the less tangible impacts. Early in his post, Mike observes that mass incarceration “doesn’t get discussed in the generic inequality story.” As I suggested below, I think mass incarceration would be a serious problem even if the top 5 percent of earners in the U.S. were packed into a space capsule and fired into deep space. 

Regardless, Mike does us all a service by highlighting a new report by Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, sponsored by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project:

Statistics are very hard to do on this, but the report finds that incarceration itself (as opposed to the arrest and conviction) reduces earnings and hours worked significantly. How? The likely mechanisms is detachment from the labor force and society at large, the social networks the person is likely to build are criminally active, the subsequent supervision sending people back as well as child support arrearages and other court payments that add up while out of the labor force.


And as a number of scholars have observed, mass incarceration has the perverse effect of destigmatizating incarceration. Incarceration rates are subject to a Laffer Curve, with a point after which you actually increase crime by incarcerating more people. We appear to be past that point. 

If we are concerned about stagnating wages, mobility and inequality then finding better ways of dealing with criminal justice and alternatives to incarceration is a connected and urgent part of the problem. Look at the demographics hit by increasing incarceration and then think about the demographics that have stagnant wages.

I see this a bit differently: if you care about the living standards of our fellow human beings and our fellow citizens, you have good reason to care about increasing incarceration. If you care about exploding public debt levels, the expansion of state power and public spending, and the excessive influence of the correctional unions, you should care about increasing incarceration. But if you care primarily about inequality, it’s not obvious that raising wages at the bottom by adopting smarter, more effective crime-fighting strategies and improving schools and finding better ways to impart noncognitive skills will solve the supposed problem posed of, for example, rising compensation for executives and managers at closely held firms.