Commentary: Incarceration's impact on society is shameful

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramOctober 10, 2010 

You won't need a calculator, but get ready to decipher a bunch of numbers — data that ought to make Americans feel both sadness and shame.

For those of us who've kept up with our criminal justice system the past three decades, these numbers I'm about to share are neither surprising nor shocking, but they do paint a startling picture of the impact our high incarceration rate is having on individuals, families and our society as a whole.

In a report issued last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts, researchers document the scale of incarceration in the United States and its direct effect on the earning power of former inmates and their children.

Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility, a collaborative effort between Pew's Economic Mobility Project and its Public Safety Performance Project, also breaks down the impact imprisonment has on those of different races. Again, while that news isn't amazing unto itself, it should sound an alarm that will awaken us from our deep sleep of complacency.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million Americans behind bars, a 300 percent increase since 1980, the report states. This country has more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined.

While the costs of housing prisoners -- $50 billion annually for state correctional costs alone -- should be enough to cause us to rethink our way of doing things, the overall societal and human costs should be even more convincing.

The study shows that "One in 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail, compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African-American men. More young (20-34) African-American men without a high school diploma or GED are currently behind bars (37 percent) than employed (26 percent)."

Perhaps most disturbing is the 2.7 million American children who have a parent behind bars, a massive increase from 25 years ago when 1 in 125 kids had an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 28 today. And, "two-thirds of these children's parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses," the report says.

"One in 9 African-American children (11.4 percent), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and 1 in 57 white children (1.8 percent) have an incarcerated parent," according to Collateral Costs.

We've known for some time that imprisonment makes it tough for an individual to get a job or find housing once he or she is released.

The report notes that "serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent." The typical former inmate, by age 48, will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.

Before being imprisoned, more than two-thirds of male inmates had jobs and more than half were the primary source of financial support for their children, the study shows. When a released inmate can't take care of his family, guess who bears the costs?

According to the study, "Children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared with 4 percent).

And noting that education and parental income are strong indicators of children's future economic mobility, the report points out: "Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was the year before a father is incarcerated. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration."

The study didn't just talk about the problems, but offered solutions, such as: proactively reconnecting former inmates to the labor market; helping the person's economic condition by capping the percent of offenders' income subject to deductions for court-ordered fines, fees, etc.; screening and sorting convicted people by the risks they pose to society; and shorten prison stays by the use of earned-time credits.

As a society we must come up with an alternative to lifetime punishment for those who make mistakes. Otherwise, we're dooming a large number of offenders and their children to a lifetime of failure.

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