A major reason of the growing poverty in the United States is the nation’s fixation on imprisonment. People in prison cost money and cannot contribute to the economy. The US spends $80 billion on the big business of corrections every year, and one research project shows that the increase in incarceration during the past 35 years increased poverty by 25 percent. There are 2.2 people in the country’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million on probation or parole. That’s one of every 35 adults. Bill Quigley has listed reasons for this travesty with background information here.
Imprisonment isn’t about crime: the crime rate has gone up and down with no relationship to the increase in incarceration.
Police discriminate: police have targeted poor people and people of color without cause for decades. In just New York City, police annually stop 500,000 people—80 percent of them Blacks and Latinos—with no indication of any crime. In Chicago, 72 percent of the stops are Black people in a city where they compose only 32 percent.
Police racially profile during traffic stops: Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than White drivers, and Hispanic drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than White drivers.
Police more likely ticket Black and Hispanic motorists than White drivers for the same offenses.
Police more likely search Blacks and Latinos than Whites after traffic stops.
Governments make money from traffic tickets, usually for poorer people: an example is Ferguson (MO) which gets 40 percent or more of city revenue from traffic tickets.
Poor people suffer more from traffic tickets: more well-off people simply pay the fines, but poor people who cannot afford them lose their driver’s licenses or go to jail. In California, over 4 million people lack these licenses because they have unpaid fines and fees for traffic tickets.
Black and disabled students are much more likely to be referred to the police than other kids: Blacks represent 16 percent of enrolled students but receive 27 percent of police referrals. Students with disabilities have the same problem: although they represent only 14 percent of school enrollment, they receive 26 percent of the police referrals.
Black people make up about 12 percent of the US population, but Black children represent 28 percent of juvenile arrests.
Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than Whites although both people of both races use marijuana at the same rate. In some states, Blacks are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than Whites. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, the arrest rate for Blacks went from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 people while the rate for Whites went from 3.4 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons.
The U.S. has much tougher drug laws and much longer sentences for drug offenses than most other countries: drug offenders receive an average sentence of 7 months in France, twelve months in England and 23 months in the US. Crimes in the U.S. would require community service in other countries or not be considered a crime at all.
The poor must remain in jail awaiting trial because they have no funds to pay bail: every day, jails hold 500,000 people who are presumed innocent but are too poor to get bail money.
Jails and prisons are used for job creation: over 3,000 local jails in the U.S. hold 500,000 people awaiting trial every day and another 200,000 convicted on minor charges. During one year, the jails process over 11.7 million people. The state and federal prisons hold about 1.5 million prisoners.
Most people in locals jails are not a threat to the population: almost 75 percent of people are in the jails for nonviolent offenses such as traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses.
Posting financial bonds for release pending trial employs about 15,000 bail bond agents for the industry that collects about $14 billion every year.
The rate of mental illness inside jails is four to six times higher than on the outside: people with severe mental illness are sent to jails although they provide almost no treatment.
Of the almost 70 percent of people in prison who meet the medical criteria for drug abuse or dependence, only 7 to 17 percent ever receive drug abuse treatment inside prison.
Presumed innocent people who are too poor, too mentally ill, or too chemically dependent are kept in jail until their trial dates.
Poor people have to rely on public defenders, and the vast majority of people with misdemeanor charges never see a lawyer. Thirteen states don’t mandate that people have access to public defenders in misdemeanor courts. Public defenders may also have several hundred cases at one time.
Many poor people plead guilty: a review from the American Bar Association concludes that the U.S. public defender system lacks fundamental fairness and puts poor people at risk of wrongful conviction.
The police force many people, much later exonerated, to plead guilty.
Most people in prison don’t have trials: over 95 percent of criminal cases are finished by plea bargains. The percentage of trials have shrunk because of higher sentences for those who lose trials and the power given to prosecutors.
Jail makes people worse off: people who can’t get bail are four times more likely to receive a prison sentence than those with bail. Within the walls of jails and prisons are tens of thousands of rapes and over 4,000 murders each year.
Average prison sentences are much longer than they used to be, especially for people of color: the average time for property crimes has increased 24 percent and the time for drug crimes has gone up 36 percent since 1990.
A Black man without a high school diploma has a 70-percent chance of being imprisoned by his mid-thirties. The rate for White males without this diploma is 53 percent lower, a change since the 8-percent difference in 1980. In New York City, Blacks are jailed at nearly 12 times the rate of Whites and Latinos more than five times the rate of Whites.
Almost 1 of 12 Black men ages 25 to 54 are in jail or prison, compared to 1 in 60 non-Black men: that is 600,000 Black men, an imprisonment rate of five times that of White men. One out of three young Black males is under the direct supervision of the criminal justice system, either incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.
Prison makes money for private businesses that lobby for greater incarceration: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) owns and runs 67 for-profit jails in 20 states with over 90,000 beds. Along with GEO (formerly Wackenhut), these two private prison companies have donated more than $10 million to candidates and spent another $25 million lobbying them. They have doubled the number of prisoners they hold over the past ten years. Contracts with most private companies require that the prisons stay between 80 and 90 percent full.
Over 159,000 people are serving life sentences in the U.S., a 400-percent increase since 1984: nearly half are Black and 1 in 6 are Latino; almost 250,000 prisoners are over age 50.
Prisoners pay exorbitant costs for telephone calls to their families, sometimes as high as $12.95 for a 15-minute calls.
The 3.9 million people on probation also make money for private companies that contract with governments to supervise them and collect debts.
As many as 100 million people have a criminal record in the United States, and over 94 million of those records are online: people who have been arrested and convicted face serious problems getting a job, a home, public assistance, and education. More than 60 percent of people formerly incarcerated are unemployed one year after being released. Within three years of release, about two-thirds of state prisons are rearrested. Employment losses for people with criminal records have been estimated at as much as $65 billion every year.
Employers unlikely to check on the criminal history of White male applicants will check Black applicants.
Families are hurt by the prison mill because 180,000 women are subject to lifetime bans from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families after felony drug convictions.
With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States is truly “exceptional.” More than half the world’s countries have incarceration rates of lower than 150 (per 100,000) while the U.S. has 764 imprisonments per 100,000 people. A nation with about 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of its prisoners. The government annually pays an average of $31,286 per inmate—New York pays $60,000.
“Today, a criminal record serves as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty.”—Center for American Progress