Today there are roughly two million people who are incarcerated in the United States, which is more than in any other country in the world. High recidivism rates, such as the fact that nearly two out of three formerly incarcerated people are rearrested, show that incarceration may not be an effective solution for crime. Here are some ways that mass incarceration costs communities, workplaces and the economy—as well as some new paths forward.
Alternatives To Incarceration Can Save Money
Avenues for Justice (AFJ), one of the first alternative-to-incarceration for youth in the country, provides youth ages 13 to 24 years old with free court advocacy and offers HIRE UP prevention programs, including workforce training, education, mentoring and life-skills workshops. The program has proven to be effective: On average, 94% of AFJ’s court-involved participants are not reconvicted of a new crime within three years of starting the program. Not only does the program have a track record for keeping people out of prison, it also offers enormous cost savings: AFJ spends an average of $6,300 per person, as compared to the nearly $450,000 the city would spend incarcerating that same person.
This dollar amount raises the question: If there is a solution that saves taxpayers’ money and prevents people from being incarcerated, why isn’t the solution being more widely used?
“That figure is just a reflection of how invested we as a society are in the punishment and incarceration of certain people, versus doing something such as getting these individuals some sort of help,” says Brian Stanley, a court advocate for Avenues for Justice. “People feel like, ‘I don't want to fund the help you're going to receive in any way, so I'm willing to pay a hundred times that amount to punish you.’”
Mass incarceration costs the economy in other ways in addition to the dollar amount associated with paying for the prison population. The United States incarcerating millions of people also keeps money from being fueled back into the economy, because those roughly two million incarcerated people are not participating in the workforce, paying taxes or spending their paychecks on goods and services. “If you have two million people who earn a paltry living of $1,000 a month—which isn’t even realistic because you’d make more on a minimum wage salary—that's still $2 billion a month that the economy loses,” says Stanley.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates the annual loss to the GDP from incarcerated people being out of the workforce is between $78 and $87 billion.
Mass Incarceration Is Not Making Our Communities Safer
When it comes to public safety, putting people in prison may not have as big of an impact on preventing violent crime as one may think. Research shows that higher incarceration rates don’t necessarily lower violent crime, as people convicted of violent crime will receive prison sentences regardless of whether incarceration rates are high or low.
Moreover, neighborhoods and states with high incarceration rates may actually experience an increase in crime, possibly due to the social and family breakdowns and loss of income and opportunities that result from a higher number of community members being incarcerated.
Marcus Bullock, entrepreneur and CEO of Flikshop, an app that helps incarcerated people stay connected to their families and build community, has a personal story that reflects larger systemic issues of mass incarceration’s impact on families and communities. Tried as an adult at just 15 years old, Bullock was sentenced to eight years in an adult maximum security prison as a sophomore in high school.
“All of my formative years spent growing up inside of some of the state of Virginia's worst prisons led my mom to have less influence on my life than she wanted,” says Bullock. “As I started to wrestle with the new reality that I was going to have to actually grow up there, my mom made a commitment to me when I was in prison to write me a letter or send me photos every day to help neutralize some of what I would see—all of those fights on the wreck yard, the dead bodies, the pressures that the correctional officers will put on the residents that live there. All of those things that would drown out any level of happiness or gratefulness that my mom would try to instill in me were fading, but then her photos and letters would reel me back into the possibilities of what life could look like.”
Inspired by his mother’s love and commitment to keeping him connected to the outside world, upon reentry Bullock created the tech company Flikshop to connect families, erase stigma and show people who are incarcerated the possibilities of life outside of their cells.
“Mass incarceration is seen as a mirror of public safety, but there is no data that supports it makes any of us safer,” says Bullock. “If we want to make cities and communities safer, let's think about what that really looks like, what corrections should be made and how it should operate.”
While the research shows mass incarceration to have little to no effect on violent crime, the data does link lower crime rates to factors such as increased wages, increased employment, increased graduation rates, and increased consumer confidence.
Creating Pathways To Employment Could Lower Recidivism
A big barrier to reentry for the formerly incarcerated is finding employment. For example, only 5% of Black job candidates and 17% of White candidates with criminal records get called back for an interview. Yet the most important factor in keeping people from being arrested and incarcerated again is employment: Recidivism rates are cut in half for formerly incarcerated people with full-time jobs compared to those who are unemployed.
Initiatives trying to remove bias and structural barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated include Ban the Box, which removes conviction and arrest history questions from job applications and delays background checks until later in the hiring process, and the Clean Slate Initiative, which is pushing to automate the sealing of conviction records after people have served their sentence and remained crime free for a period of time.
In addition to facing stereotypes and stigma once incarcerated people return to society, they often lack the resources, such as education and networks, to set them up for success. “One of the things that is preventing folks from coming home and doing well is a lack of reentry programs inside and outside of the facilities, and giving people support before they come home,” says Bullock. “If we're being thoughtful about giving folks that are in cells social capital access well before they get out, then I promise you we'll have a better success rate and we'll lower recidivism, which is now harboring at around 76% for people that are coming out of these cells and going right back within three years.”
To help solve for this, Bullock founded the Flikshop School of Business, a program that teaches returning citizens life skills and entrepreneurship via computer coding and software development. “What I tell folks all the time when I go back and visit these cells is that they are the before, and I'm the after,” says Bullock. “I want to help give you the skills and the tools that you need in order to be able to accelerate that new growth trajectory that's waiting on the other side of your release date.”
Mass incarceration and barriers to employment for returning citizens cost taxpayers money, aren’t linked to lowering crime, and cost workplaces talent. “We lose contributors to our society who are warehoused somewhere basically wasting away,” says Stanley. “We don't know who or what any given person that is incarcerated might or can become. [Mass incarceration] has a compounded effect. As opposed to these people contributing to the greatest society—whether it's material wealth, ideas, or ingenuity—now we are burdened with the cost of warehousing them. It's a complete loss.”