Mass Incarceration Is The Enemy Of Economic Opportunity

Even short stints in jail drastically reduce a person’s chance of escaping poverty. How can we stop locking up so many people?


More than 2 million Americans–about a quarter of the total inmates in the entire world–are kept in prisons and jails in this country. The penal state is vast and largely hidden from view. But if you put all those people in one place, they’d amount to a mid-sized city, roughly the population of Houston. Mandatory sentencing, zero-tolerance street-clearance programs, the War on Drugs, and endless tough-on-crime political rhetoric has amounted to an $80-billion annual bill for keeping the 2 million people locked up. Think about the schools, hospitals, tax cuts, and food stamps we could cover with that money instead.


The penal state also reflects larger racial and economic disparities at work in the country. Despite accounting for just 14% of the whole population, 40% of incarcerated people are black. A black man who was born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to prison, compared to a 6% chance for a white man (though arrest rates are more similar across races). One in nine black children has a parent in prison, against one in 56 white children. And jails, which now contain three times as many people as in the 1980s, are filled with people whose only real crime is being poor: Thousands of people land in jail because they failed to pay parking tickets or speeding fines, or because they couldn’t keep up with the cost of detention itself. Most states charge for jail accommodation, parole services, and electronic bracelets.

[Photo: Emilie1980/iStock]

There are many reasons why low-income Americans fail to make it out of poverty, including poor education, housing, or lack of health insurance. But the fact that we lock up so many people is a big and under-acknowledged one. The penal state is a drag on public resources and an unnecessary drag on people’s lives. “Over-criminalization substantially reduces an individual’s chance of reaching middle class by middle age,” said a report from the Bridgespan Group, a Boston-based consulting nonprofit. “Men who have been imprisoned are significantly less upwardly mobile, in both absolute and relative terms, than those who have not,” the report added. One estimate says incarceration reduces future earnings by 40%. And that’s just prison. Even short jail stays “have toxic effects” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation, in an interview with Co.Exist. People lose their jobs and lose their children; over time, the effects of jail time compound, meaning even misdemeanors can be life-altering.

Billion Dollar Bets

Bridgespan’s report is part of its “Billion Dollar Bets” series, which identifies six areas of philanthropic investment that could have outsized impacts on improving “economic opportunity for every American.” We covered the initial report here; another on early-childhood interventions here; and another on preventing unwanted pregnancies here. The aim of the series is to find ways that private capital can drive reforms that wouldn’t happen on their own. “Doing this work is politically precarious in a lot of jurisdictions,” says Devin Murphy, a manager in the nonprofit’s San Francisco office. “By creating enough of an incentive fund, you can hopefully foster the right set of collaborations between police units, communities, and policymakers to create solutions tailored to their environment.”

The report sets out three out possible investments. First, there’s a need for a new research organization that collects and analyzes hard data on incarceration across the country and its larger cost to society (both immediate and longer term). “Having a clear picture is a first step to understanding where we might want to put more solutions,” says Debby Bielak, one of the report’s authors, in an interview.

Second, philanthropists could fund a grant-based competition for programs that reduce recidivism and crime. That might include programs that reduce the rate of suspensions and expulsions in schools–events that often become entry points to the criminal justice system. It might also mean diverting the mentally ill away from jails and toward health services, or developing ways to help criminals reenter the workplace.


And third, funders could put money behind tracking the effect of interventions and disseminating the findings to persuade other states to adopt similar policies and principles to effect change, the report said. For example, the report calculates that each teen who avoids conviction before the age of 19 could increase family lifetime earnings by $22,800 (the number is even higher for black males). By investing $1 billion across the three interventions, funders could directly contribute to reducing convictions by 12.5% to 20% and see social returns of $4.3 to $8.6 billion. Again, that number would be higher if the money went exclusively toward funding interventions for black men.

The Safety and Justice Challenge

In fact, philanthropists are already doing something along the lines of what Bridgespan is proposing. The MacArthur Foundation has put up about $100 million to sponsor 20 pilot projects around the country aimed at reducing jail populations and addressing racial disparities in local justice systems.

“There’s been a great deal of attention on the need for criminal justice reform but it was very much at the back-end, looking at changes to sentencing and prison reform,” says Garduque, at the MacArthur Foundation. “The processes that lead people to be incarcerated have not received as much attention.”

Jails are designed for short sentences or to hold people pretrial. According to official statistics, 75% are there for low-level nonviolent offenses–for example, because they can’t pay fines or fees. But even short jail stays increase the likelihood of full incarceration and harsher sentences and reduce economic prospects, Garduque says. In other words, increasing the size of jail populations increases the number of people likely to end up in state or federal prisons.

The strategies MacArthur is sponsoring include diverting the mentally ill to separate treatment facilities (an estimated 17% of men and 34% of women in jails could fall into this category) and new public-safety assessments to evaluate whether someone needs to be in jail to meet a court date. Participating jurisdictions receive $3.5 million in grant money, and include Philadelphia and New York City; Pima County, Arizona;, Spokane County, Washington; and Lucas County, Ohio. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Harris County, Texas, which aims to cut its jail numbers by 21% in three years, has set up a “Reintegration Impact Court” to divert drug possession, prostitution, and retail theft cases outside the criminal justice system.


Prosecutors can determine whether people are low, moderate, or high risk, and devise a system to check that they’re remaining in their communities, Garduque says. “It can be light supervision, reporting to pretrial services, or electronic monitoring. But the idea is to focus on risk, and not whether somebody can pay a loan that day.”

In the long term, MacArthur hopes the pilot projects will serve as models. “The use of jail has really reached crisis proportions, and up to now we’ve been looking at it piecemeal,” Garduque says. “We want to elevate this as an issue so the country as a whole is addressing it.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.