Yang: Ineffective Incarceration
By Lorelei Yang, Staff Columnist
Published on Thursday, February 21, 2013
In social science and humanitarian circles, it is an oft-repeated fact that the United States, ostensibly the land of the free, has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Since the shift during the 1980s to more strict penal policies in an effort to combat rising crime, incarceration rates among poor, urban and black communities have climbed to astronomical rates. The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, in large part because prisoners now serve longer terms than they would have in past decades for the same crimes. As the Obama administration tackles poverty and hunger issues, it would be well-advised to consider punitive measures outside the penal system for non-violent offenders, even in multiple-offense cases. Reducing the number of prisoners in U.S. penitentiaries would have positive effects on poverty, urban and minority community health and government budgets.
According to Villanova University sociology and criminal justice professors Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, the nation’s 2004 poverty rate would have been 20 percent lower if not for the rise of mass incarceration. Put differently, there would have been five million fewer Americans living below the poverty line in 2004. This is for a number of reasons. First, families where a spouse is incarcerated suffer the immediate loss of that spouse’s income. Second, post-incarceration, most employers are reluctant to hire anyone with a record — and in the current economic climate, with many more job applicants than there are openings for most jobs, this often leads to inmate unemployment after release. Third, having an incarcerated family member can cause the rest of the family to have to move if they wish to be able to visit the individual regularly. This often makes it difficult for the family members of a prisoner to hold steady employment.
The negative economic effects of long prison terms are particularly evident in the black community, where one in four African-Americans born after 1980 grows up with an incarcerated parent at some point during their childhood. Since nearly 40 percent of black men without high school diplomas between the ages of 20 and 40 are currently incarcerated, these individuals are more likely to be incarcerated than employed. This is incredibly harmful to the fabric of the communities from which these men come, not just because it deprives these communities of their breadwinners and family providers.
Additional consequences also arise when entire communities suffer from significant gender imbalances. In some areas there are six men to every 10 women due to the disproportionately high rate of black male incarceration. Epidemologists have found that rising incarceration rates are correlated with increases in STD transmission rates, teenage pregnancy and non-monogamous relationships, possibly because women in male-scare communities lose the power to require their partners to practice protected sex or remain monogamous. Similarly, researchers trying to explain the much higher prevalence of HIV/AIDS among blacks point to the disruption of steady relationships and consequent encouragement of high-risk sexual behavior that incarceration precipitates. Long-term incarceration’s myriad effects on the spouses of those who are incarcerated are so broad and far-reaching that it is sometimes termed the “secondary prisonization” of those women.
On a national level, reducing the number of inmates in U.S. penitentiaries would also reduce a major source of strain in both federal and state budgets. In New Jersey, for example, the annual cost of housing a single inmate is $44,000. From 1987 to 2007, federal corrections spending increased 127 percent.
It is time to reassess our national and social priorities. Rather than incarcerating offenders for increasingly longer periods of time and relying on the punitive effects of incarceration to deter bad behavior, we should instead focus on promoting healthy communities and boosting low-income children’s odds of social advancement as truly sustainable ways to effect positive change in traditionally high-crime communities. The agenda around prisons must shift from indefinite incarceration to incarceration only as needed in order for change to occur. And further, our national agenda must refocus on the social programs — education, early childhood development, post-incarceration support and employment aid — that can make long-term impacts on individuals’ personal prospects.