Senior Policy Analyst
Program Director, State Policy Fellowship Program
Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs, I explained yesterday, imposing high costs on states even as many states have cut education funding. Here’s a closer look at the causes and impacts of high incarceration rates:
Incarceration rates have risen mainly because states are sending a much larger share of offenders to prison and keeping them there longer — two factors under policymakers’ direct control. Reforms to reduce prison populations will need to target these two areas.
More specifically, research on the causes of rising incarceration rates has found:
High incarceration rates impose significant human (as well as budgetary) costs. People with criminal convictions face serious challenges in finding stable, decent-paying jobs. Time behind bars is generally time lost developing the skills and education increasingly necessary in today’s labor market, a particular problem given that formerly incarcerated people typically have less education.
Even those who do find jobs typically earn less than otherwise-similar people who haven’t been incarcerated. A Pew study found that men with a criminal conviction worked roughly nine fewer weeks, and earned 40 percent less, each year than otherwise similar non-offenders.
Incarceration also increases poverty, for former inmates as well as other household members, including children. Many inmates are also parents and/or partners, and their incarceration leaves households with one less potential wage earner.
Tomorrow I’ll outline some ways that states can reduce high incarceration rates, generating savings that they can use more productively.