Incarceration Widens Inequality
January 6, 2012 | Lillian Chen and Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD
Many prisoners enter the justice system economically and occupationally disadvantaged, and incarceration only compounds the challenges they face. National survey data show that most offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts and that approximately half of state prisoners are either unemployed or only working part-time before their arrest (Western, 2006). With little or no occupational programming available for inmates, time behind bars is time lost to develop and accumulate valuable skills and work experience.
Many prisoners enter the justice system economically and occupationally disadvantaged, and incarceration only compounds the challenges they face. National survey data show that most offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts and that approximately half of state prisoners are either unemployed or only working part-time before their arrest (Western, 2006). With little or no occupational programming available for inmates, time behind bars is time lost to develop and accumulate valuable skills and work experience. Having a criminal record and little work skills or experience makes it much more difficult to enter or reenter the labor market. Due to legal restrictions and, frequently, distrust and fear, employers can be even more reluctant to hire those with criminal records than other stigmatized and disadvantaged groups, such as welfare recipients. Many ex-offenders return to the impoverished communities they had been living in before arrest, sometimes as a condition of parole. These communities typically have few unskilled jobs available and can lack cohesive social and professional networks. Thus, incarceration further limits prisoners’ earning potential and employability, especially those incarcerated at a young age. For those who do find work, studies have shown that earnings can be reduced by up to 30% following a period of incarceration, compared to what they would be without incarceration (Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003). Unfortunately, these circumstances can lead ex-offenders back to criminal activities, perpetuating a cycle of incarceration.
These difficulties disproportionately affect people of color. In 2009, Black non-Hispanic males had an imprisonment rate that was nearly six times, and Hispanic males three times, that of white non-Hispanic males (West, Sabol, & Greenman, 2010). Hispanics and African Americans together represent approximately two thirds of the state prison population, but less than one third of the total U.S. population. In 2000, imprisonment was a more common event in the lives of young African American men than serving in the army, graduating from college, or participating in labor unions. People of color who have been previously incarcerated end up even more disconnected from society, reinforcing social and economic inequities.
Policies that reduce obstacles to finding jobs can help reduce the inequities exacerbated by incarceration. For example, increasing funding and accessibility of financial incentives for employers, such as tax credits and fidelity bonds, can encourage employment of job applicants with criminal records. Fidelity bonds are insurance policies for employers that cover money and/or property losses caused by dishonest or negligent actions of their employees. Transitional work opportunities can help ex-offenders develop work-readiness skills and provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their personal qualities and capabilities to employers. It is also critical to fund and strengthen in-custody and post-release programming and rehabilitation services, such as education, life and job skills training, and support for substance abuse and mental health issues in order to empower former inmates in their transition back to regular life.
For more information:
On fidelity bonds, see National Hire Network:http://www.hirenetwork.org/?q=content/federal-bonding-program
On transitional jobs, see National Transitional Jobs Network: http://www.heartlandalliance.org/ntjn/
Holzer, H., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. (2003). Employment barriers facing ex-offenders. Paper presented at the Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable, New York University Law School. http://www.urban.org/uploadedPDF/410855_holzer.pdf
West, H., Sabol, W., Greenman, S. (2010). Bulletin: Prisoners in 2009. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p09.pdf
Western, Bruce. (2006). Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Christopher Hartney is a Senior Researcher at NCCD.