The U.S. criminal justice system has kept millions of Americans in an endless cycle of poverty and incarceration, creating barriers for former inmates as well as their families, communities and national economy, according to a new report published Tuesday.
Adding to the body of research that has shown mass incarceration to be a principal driver of inequality in America, particularly among men of color, the report—One Strike and You’re Out How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records (pdf)—examines the economic consequences of having a criminal record.
"Today, a criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty," write report authors Rebecca Vallas, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, and Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Philadelphia's Community Legal Services.
Among the causes, they note that a criminal record presents obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, and family reunification. Moreover, incarceration has become a growing consequence of poverty "due to the growing criminalization of poverty and homelessness," the authors add.
In recent years, these barriers have been intensified by policy choices such as blanket bans on providing people with criminal records with necessities such as housing and public assistance. Further, according to the study, due to the ease of accessing data via the internet, today "4 out of 5 landlords and nearly 9 in 10 employers using criminal background checks to screen out people with criminal records before they even get a shot."
As noted in a piece published Tuesday by Brennan Center for Justice counsels Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Jessica Eaglin, the criminal justice system also imposes countless fees on inmates causing individuals to emerge from incarceration having paid a "penalty for an offense, and then be incarcerated for failing to pay off the debt incurred as a result of that offense."
"People are treated as criminals long after they pose any significant risk of committing further crimes— making it difficult for many to move on with their lives and achieve basic economic security, let alone have a shot at upward mobility," Vallas and Dietrich write.
The poverty-incarceration cycle has significant implications on the U.S. economy as a whole. Citing a 2010 Center for Economic and Policy Research report, Vallas and Dietrich note that the estimated cost of employment losses among people with criminal records is much as $65 billion per year in terms of gross domestic product.
The result of this system, according to Vallas and Dietrich, is that the nearly one in three Americans with a criminal record "are prevented from becoming productive members of society, and their families, communities, and the national economy are held back as well."
Among the many recommendations put forth in the report, Vallas and Dietrich say that legislation that would "automatically seal low-level, nonviolent convictions after an individual has demonstrated his or her rehabilitation" is tantamount to providing Americans who have a criminal record with a "truly clean slate."
Short of that, the report recommends that state and federal governments: enact protections against egregious background checks, advocate fair-chance hiring practices by government contractors, eliminate "one-strike" public housing policies, invest in prison education and training, suspend the felony drug ban on income and nutrition assistance, and reform criminal justice debt policies, among others.
Published by the Center for American Progress, One Strike and You're Out was released in conjunction with a week of advocacy on criminal justice reform being hosted by CAP blog TalkPoverty.org.