It’s time we connected the dots. Today, 1 in every 28 kids has a parent behind bars – and the average black household owns a nickel for each white household’s dollar. With over 2.2 million people locked up, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; at the same time, our levels of wealth inequality have reached unprecedented levels.
Yet by and large, policymakers and pundits have failed to connect the consequences of mass incarceration to the racial wealth gap—though they are intimately intertwined and self-reinforcing. Both phenomena reflect a national legacy of racism this country has yet to fully reckon with—and each exacerbates the other. Financial vulnerability makes incarceration more likely—while incarceration itself impoverishes families and communities. Shifting the tide will demand an equivalently forceful policy response. The REDEEM Act, a new piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is a promising step in the right direction, in large part because it acknowledges this destructive cycle.
Though it has similar historical roots, mass incarceration is a more recent social tragedy—a modern form of social control and confinement linked directly to the misguided “War on Drugs.” Despite similar rates of drug use, men of color are far more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for low-level drug crimes. As Michelle Alexander illustrates at length in The New Jim Crow, the combination of legally-sanctioned racial profiling, draconian mandatory minimum sentences, and arbitrary disparities in sentencing that produce clear racial impacts have yielded an America in which 1 in 3 black men can expect to be locked up at some point in his lifetime—compared to just 1 in 17 white men.
These two systemic failures feed off of each other, creating a vicious cycle. Criminal defendants without financial resources are far less likely to hire their own attorney and must depend on the woefully underfunded public defense system. The for-profit bail industry keeps more low-income defendants behind bars while they await trial, and research shows that criminal defendants with less money are likely to receive longer sentences. The role that personal financial wealth plays in creating disparate outcomes in the justice system undermines the very principles upon which such a system claims to be built.
Meanwhile, the economic drain of incarceration both destabilizes individual households and reverberates through entire communities. Sixty percent of incarcerated fathers were employed full-time prior to their incarceration, with 68 percent of those serving as the primary breadwinners for their families. The costs of having a loved one in prison—from legal fees to phone calls to expensive, $500 trips to visit—can add up fast. And even relatively short stints behind bars can reduce annual earnings by 40 percent and have permanent negative consequences for economic mobility, which carry over into the next generation. The family is the most basic unit of wealth transfer—Thomas Piketty’s recent bestseller tells us that inheritances are playing an increasingly significant role in the wealth divide. Families of color are already starting at a disadvantage, and disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system exacerbates the gap. Even upon release, ex-offenders are routinely excluded from jobs, housing, college loans or even basic public assistance to put food on the table. It’s no wonder up to 27 percent of people leaving prison expect to be homeless when they get out.
Here’s how the REDEEM Act would help.
First, it would enable adults with non-violent drug offenses to seal their criminal records—boosting their likelihood of finding employment and mitigating some of the lifetime losses in wages documented by researchers. Especially as an increasing number of states are decriminalizing marijuana, the current lifelong consequences triggered by a low-level drug offense make no sense—for ex-offenders or for the economy as a whole. Reducing needless barriers to employment would give millions of Americans a second chance to be productive members of the workforce.
Second, the REDEEM Act would end state policies that single out low-level drug offenders for exclusion from certain public assistance programs that can be essential to reintegrating in society and reducing recidivism. For people returning to their communities with next to nothing, access to basic food and cash assistance can deter individuals from resorting to illegal activity simply to survive or provide for their families.
And finally, the legislation would keep more kids out of prison in the first place, by urging states to keep defendants who are under 18 out of the adult criminal justice system, and ensuring that juvenile records for non-violent offenses are sealed and expunged. These reforms would disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, giving more youth the opportunity to get back on track and contribute to society, rather than being derailed for life by one youthful mistake. Permanently relegating children to society’s margins is a massive waste of potential that harms both individual families and the larger economy.
Policies created the wealth gap. Policies created mass incarceration. But even policy deserves a second chance. Policymakers – through the REDEEM Act – may be able to help stop this cycle for good.
Sprague is a policy analyst with the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation.