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"Race, Poverty and Incarceration,"

by Donald Braman November/December 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

Londa and her three children live in a small row house that is part of a Section 8 housing project in central Washington, DC. Inside her home, surrounded by the debris of family life—toys, a few empty kid-sized boxes of juice, dishes on the table from a lunch just finished, bottles and baby blankets strewn over the couch—she is apologetic for the mess. “But,” she says, “I’ve got three kids, a broken leg and a husband who’s locked up.” She’s been struggling against her husband’s crack addiction and struggling to keep her family together for 15 years. Gesturing out the window, she says: “I don’t want to end up like everyone else. I guess I’m halfway there. But my kids need a father. I look around here and none of these kids have fathers. It’s a mess what’s happened.”

What has happened—to her family, to her community, to our criminal justice system and to our society as a whole—truly is a mess. If the massive expansion of the criminal justice system is intended to make people safer, why can a person buy crack cocaine on any corner in Londa’s neighborhood at any time of the day or night? Why can’t she walk alone to or from public transportation after dark? Like most inner-city residents living in areas where incarceration rates are highest, just about no one feels safe or protected. We spend over $40 billion a year on incarceration, locking up over 2 million Americans on any given day and far more than that over the course of any given year. And, while incarceration does temporarily incapacitate some criminal offenders, something is clearly going wrong. The more researchers find out about the rapid and massive expansion of the criminal justice system over the last three decades, the more troubling our public policies appear. It turns out that mass incarceration is not only a bad way to go about protecting the public, it goes a fair distance towards draining low-income communities of wealth, trust and intact families.

How can incarceration, our principal response to crime and ostensibly a boon to public safety, be so destructive? To understand this, one has to understand the social nature of incarceration. Incarceration, as a growing body of research details, doesn’t just affect those who break the law. Most inmates, like Londa’s husband Derrick, are fathers, and most incarcerated fathers, like Derrick, lived with their children prior to incarceration and remain in contact with them during their incarceration. Most who spend time behind bars were also gainfully employed prior to being incarcerated, but earn close to nothing while in prison and, when released, face significantly diminished earning potential. The vast majority are also nonviolent offenders. And most drug offenders, like Derick, are not required to complete a drug treatment program.

Indeed, far from holding them accountable in any meaningful way, incarceration effectively holds offenders unaccountable to everyone who matters: their victims, their families and their communities. Forcibly removed from their social networks, they are excused from all meaningful social obligations for extended periods of time, then dumped back into their families and communities with lower job prospects and damaged relationships. The cumulative effect on family life, local economies and social norms regarding responsible behavior are, these studies show, a policy disaster. By holding offenders unaccountable to their families and communities, incarceration—at least as it is currently practiced—is creating the kind of concentrated intergenerational poverty in historically disadvantaged communities that we spend billions of public dollars trying to combat. Indeed, of all the social institutions that contribute to racial disparities in the United States today, it may well be our criminal justice system that is making the most significant contribution.

The lack of attention to the families and communities affected by incarceration can help to explain the historical willingness of states to accept mass incarceration as a default response to social disorder. Thankfully, policymakers are beginning to take note. Congress recently held hearings on the costs, both social and material, associated with mass incarceration, and most states are in the process of reviewing and revising their criminal codes with an eye to reducing the number of offenders sentenced to prison. It’s a wake-up call that is long overdue.

A Typical Cycle

To grasp the basic problem, consider the story that Londa tells about the cycle of incarceration followed by relapse and re-incarceration—one that is all too familiar to those living in disadvantaged communities. Perhaps the most obvious effects of current criminal practices are material. Reviewing Londa’s income and expenses, it becomes clear that her financial problems are directly related to the loss of Derrick’s income and the additional costs that accompany his incarceration. She lives on a fixed income of $463 a month from the welfare system. After $100 for rent and another $300 for groceries (which works out to less than $3 for food per day, per person), there isn’t enough to pay for electricity, the phone and transportation. She is far from lazy, but with two children and one infant, she doesn’t have the resources to care for them herself. “Oh, I can’t stand to ask anybody to help me with anything. So I really hate asking my mother now, but I can’t walk, I can’t get around. So it’s just really, really hard right now.”

Londa’s mother helps care for the children, buys groceries and even pays Londa’s rent when things are tight. But her assistance is limited to what she herself can afford, and that is not much. Already, Londa feels she has asked for far too much far too often from her mother. “I know that she doesn’t have a lot, too, so that’s something I have to think about.” Derrick’s sisters also try to help when they can, but they have families of their own and are struggling just to get by. Derrick’s sister, Brenda, describes her surprise at how “it just all adds up.” “The phone bills — the phone bill is something else!” One of the more unpleasant surprises to many families is the high cost of phone calls from prison. Inmates can only call collect, and additional charges for monitoring and recording by the prison phone company add up quickly; indeed, many families have their phones disconnected within two months of an incarceration.

Indeed, the most costly regular expense for many families are prison phone charges. Most correctional facilities contract out phone services and actually receive money from the phone company for doing so. Phone companies thus compete with each other for the service, but not by providing lower prices: The key issue phone companies compete on is how much revenue the service will return to the Department of Corrections in each state. Because phone conversations are often time-limited, many families are required to accept several calls to complete a single conversation, with connection charges applying to each call. As a result, collect calls from prisons can be as much as 20 times as expensive as standard collect calls. Families with loved ones incarcerated out of state have shown me years of phone records that average well over $200 a month. Many families in this study, including Londa’s, have had their phone or electricity cut off for lack of payment.

After having her phone cut off for high unpaid bills the last time Derrick was incarcerated, Londa realized she had trouble refusing calls she couldn’t afford and had a “block” placed on her phone, preventing collect calls. In an arrangement that is not unusual, Derrick’s sisters now serve as a conduit to his extended family; because no one else will accept the expense of collect calls from prison, they try to patch him through to whomever he needs to talk to, using three-way calling. While it further increases the overall price of the call, it is another way for Derrick’s family to spread the cost of his incarceration.

While Londa is fortunate to have family willing to help her in Derrick’s absence, her family doesn’t have much to help her with. By spreading the costs of raising Derrick’s children and maintaining ties with him, Londa and Derrick’s families have enabled Londa to keep and care for her children. While this is undoubtedly desirable, the cost has simply been spread to other low-income households with few resources, lessening the impact on any one person, but creating a steady drain on the extended family.
Londa, for example, can no longer afford her own car—an issue that became quite serious when her mother’s car broke down and, largely as a result of helping Londa, her mother was unable to afford the repair costs. Derrick’s sister, Brenda, has also struggled with the sacrifices that she makes to keep her brother in touch with his family:

    I’m gonna be there regardless of what. And his wife, well, she’s having it rough, her and her kids, because she don’t have anything, which I don’t have anything either, but a lot of times I [still help out]. My kids don’t like it, because I try to give to [Derrick’s family], because, you know... I...I feel for them and for him in that jail. [And] when school comes it’s like, do my kids, do they get new shoes or does he get to talk to his kids. And, you know, I just think he needs to talk to them.

Families can be tremendous resources, but they are not limitless funds of wealth and generosity. The costs of Derrick’s repeated incarcerations have been dear in both material and emotional terms.

Indeed, despite the emphasis on accountability when policymakers talk about the criminal justice system, Londa’s story shows us how, in an attempt to punish criminality, policy­makers have effectively held offenders like Derrick almost entirely not accountable in ways that matter a great deal. His enforced withdrawal from the economic responsibilities of family life has pushed both his and Londa’s extended family more deeply into poverty. Given that they started with little, that loss has been all the more keenly felt.

Race and Poverty

While most accounts relating poverty and crime generally describe poverty as driving criminal activity and thus involvement in the criminal justice system, the relationship runs both ways and is arguably cyclical. Many inner-city families not only experience incarceration because they are poor, they are also poor because they experience incarceration. In light of their experiences, standard correlations, such as those shown above, take on a very different meaning.

One way—the traditional way—of interpreting these data would be to infer that people who are unemployed or have less money are more likely to engage in criminal activity. This is one of the main findings of William Julius Wilson’s book, When Work Disappears: “As many studies have revealed, the decline in legitimate employment opportunities among inner-city residents has increased incentives to sell drugs.” But the experiences of families like Londa’s tell us that the reverse is also true: Incarceration can significantly lower the income and increase the expenses of prisoners’ families.

Like Derrick, over two-thirds of the incarcerated population was gainfully employed prior to arrest. Even though family members sent to prison make, on average, poverty wages, the median household income is still lowered by the elimination of these wages. And, because many prisoners are often a source of income in households prior to their arrest, the per-capita income in that household, including unemployed, children and elderly, is also lowered when they are removed. Further, many ex-offenders find it difficult to obtain employment after release and, when they do, their earning potential is significantly lowered compared with that of non-offenders. The decreased family income is thus due not only to the removal of a wage-earning family member to prison, but also to the lowered lifetime earning potential of that family member after return from prison.

The effects of this tax are profound. A recent study by Mark Joseph (in Waldo Johnson, Jr., ed., Social Work and Social Welfare Responses to African American Males) estimated the effects of incarceration on the lifetime earnings of offenders at over $300 billion—and that is limited to the age cohort that is 16 years old today. The full impact across the generations, while far larger, is also far harder to estimate. These are costs not borne solely, or even predominantly, by offenders themselves. We know, for example, that, as noted above, phone companies and departments of corrections draw hundreds of millions of dollars each year from prisoners’ families. We also know that a broad array of other costs—from childcare and eldercare, to services to replace household help, to travel and legal expenses—are borne by families. But because these costs are more diffuse and difficult to estimate, they are rarely discussed.

Impact on Wealth Accumulation

More subtle than the immediate and direct material effects of incarceration on these families, but perhaps more serious, is the cumulative impact they can have on familial wealth across generations. By depleting the savings of offenders’ families, incarceration inhibits capital accumulation and reduces the ability of parents to pass wealth on to their children and grandchildren through inheritance and gifts. Indeed, incarceration’s draining of the resources of extended family members in the Joseph study—particularly from older family members—helps explain why there has been so little capital accumulation and inheritance among inner-city families in general and minority families in particular.

This becomes apparent when we see Derrick’s family struggling to save enough to buy their children school supplies, let alone provide for their inheritance. The disproportionate incarceration of men like Derrick helps to explain why black families are less able to save money and why each successive generation inherits less wealth than their white counterparts. Criminal sanctions—at least in their current form—act like a hidden tax, one that is visited disproportionately on poor and minority families and communities, and while the costs are most directly felt by the adults closest to the incarcerated family member, the full effect is eventually felt by the next generation as well.

Viewed in this light, the racial disparities in arrests, sentencing and parole described by many researchers take on a broader significance. For example, Census data show that blacks typically possess only one-third the assets of whites with similar incomes. While this pattern is generally attributed to lower savings and inheritance, this explanation begs the question of why savings and inheritance are lower —something that the concentration of incarceration in minority communities and its effect on capital accumulation help to explain.

Finally, it is worth noting that familial costs can also decrease investments in what is often called “human capital,” as moving to a better school district, purchasing an up-to-date computer and attending college all become less affordable. Educational attainment is one of the best predictors we have for avoiding the criminal justice system; but the benefits of investing in (and the costs of neglecting) human capital extend well beyond crime rates. As the stock of resources that a family possesses diminishes, and as members are prevented from caring for one another, more than money and objects are lost. Indeed, the material losses these families face may, in the end, be the least significant concern.

Impact on Father Absence

An examination of the relationship between incarceration and father absence in different income groups, shown as three lines in the graph on page 11, illustrates the extent to which income may mediate the impact of incarceration on family organization.

For all three income groups, where incarceration rates are at their lowest, father absence is fairly similar, occurring in fewer than 25% of households with children. As the incarceration rate increases among lower-income families, father absence increases at a far greater rate than it does among middle-income families, among whom father absence increases at a greater rate than among upper-income families. So, as the incarceration rate increases to 2%, the percentage of families absent fathers in upper-income neighborhoods climbs about 5%; in middle-income neighborhoods, it climbs about 15%; and, in lower-income neighborhoods, it climbs over 25%. The common-sense implication of this is that poor families are not only exposed to incarceration more often, they are far more likely to be broken by it.

A Problem and an Opportunity

While it is commonly assumed that the rise of incarceration reflects a peculiarly punitive attitude among Americans, in fact just about no one is happy with the status quo. Indeed, when asked to rank their satisfaction with the various parts of the criminal justice system, Americans put prisons at the bottom of the list. Rather than more incarceration, most Americans favor a thoughtful and socially constructive response to crime. For example, by a margin of nearly two-to-one, Americans favor fighting crime through reforms that feature spending money on “social and economic problems” over spending money on “police, prisons and judges.”

The question is whether the state can meet the public’s preferred response to crime, help push offenders back into a cooperative, pro-social stance, and thus strengthen the norm of cooperation and responsibility-taking in their families and communities. If the state can do this, a natural outcome will be increased participation in the social networks essential to healthy family and community life. Recall that in Londa’s neighborhood this would not be an effect at the margins; it would alter the behavior of a substantial majority of the young men.

The answer to the question is a resounding yes. The best programs— like New York’s La Bodega de la Familia, for example—aren’t blunt attempts to replace failing social networks with the heavy hand of incarceration, but thoughtful preventative programs that make the most of the social networks already in place in families and communities. By reassuring individuals in a community that the state will push offenders back into responsible behavior rather than remove them from it, pro-social interventions can help increase the likelihood that others in the community will also behave responsibly—which, in turn, makes it more likely that individuals will enter into and remain in the pro-social relationships that sustain and are sustained by that behavior. These are the networks that truly hold offenders accountable.

We should be encouraged by the increased willingness of state and federal legislators, both liberal and conservative, to take a fresh look at their sentencing laws and correctional programs. Mass incarceration, some are coming to see, is far too costly to be sustained in the long run, and works against the values they want to see the law promote.

This renewed interest in sentencing reform is apparent in the substantial interest state legislators, judges and administrators have shown, for example, in the Vera Institute’s State Sentencing and Corrections Program, which brings these parties together to discuss and share ideas about the substantive needs and political realities that often make sentencing and corrections reform difficult to achieve. A number of programs (including the Family Justice Program) are also talking across state borders to help each other better understand what is working and what could use improvement. What is encouraging here is state officials’ increased interest in what community corrections professionals have to offer them in terms of cost savings and public safety—an interest that has brought them into a broader dialogue about healthy families and communities.

While we should be chastened by the immense cost that our criminal justice system has needlessly imposed on disadvantaged families and communities, it seems the time is ripe for change. It should be inspiring to know that, if we work hard enough and smart enough, Londa’s daughter and the millions of children growing in families and communities like hers, can have a brighter future.

Donald Braman is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University. His book, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America (Univ. Michigan Press, 2004), was just released in paperback. His article, "Punishment and Accountability," appeared in 53 UCLA Law Review (2006).

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