Toxic Persons: New Research Shows Precisely How the Prison-to-Poverty Cycle Does Its Damage
Forty years after the United States began its experimentation with mass incarceration policies, the country is increasingly divided economically. In new research published in the review Daedalus, a group of leading criminologists coordinated by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (which paid me to consult on this project) argued that much of that growing inequality, which Slate’s Timothy Noah has chronicled, is linked to the increasingly widespread use of prisons and jails.
It’s well-known that the United States imprisons drastically more people than other Western countries. Here are the specifics: We now imprison more people in absolute numbers and per capita than any other country on earth. With 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. hosts upward of 20 percent of its prisoners. This is because the country’s incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the early 1970s. About 2 million Americans currently live behind bars in jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries, and many millions more are on parole or probation or have been in the recent past. In 2008, as a part of an “American Exception” series exploring the U.S. criminal-justice system, New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out that overseas criminologists were “mystified and appalled” by the scale of American incarceration. States like California now spend more on locking people up than on funding higher education.
In devastating detail in Daedalus, the sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington have shown how poverty creates prisoners and how prisons in turn fuel poverty, not just for individuals but for entire demographic groups. Crunching the numbers, they concluded that once a person has been incarcerated, the experience limits their earning power and their ability to climb out of poverty even decades after their release. It’s a vicious feedback loop that is affecting an ever-greater percentage of the adult population and shredding part of the fabric of 21st-century American society.
“Toxic Persons: New Research Shows Precisely How the Prison-to-Poverty Cycle Does Its Damage”
By Sasha Abramsky
Slate, 8 October 2010