Sustained Outrage

Poverty and incarceration

The U.S. Census Bureau released 2009 figures on income, poverty and health insurance coverage this week, and the numbers are pretty grim. Since 2008, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line grew from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent. There were 43.6 million Americans living in poverty in 2009.

And when the numbers are broken down, the results are pretty eye-popping: while the percentage of whites below the poverty line increased from 8.6 to 9.4, for blacks it went from 24.7 to 25.8, and for Hispanics it jumped from 23.2 to 25.3. Let’s think about that: one out of every four black and Hispanic Americans lives in poverty.

For children below the age of 18, the numbers jumped by almost 1.4 million in the last year, from just over 14 million in 2008 (or 19.0 percent) to 15.45 million in 2009 (or 20.7 percent). One in five American children lives in poverty.

The new numbers aren’t broken down by state, but last year, West Virginia didn’t fare very well overall (17.4 percent below the poverty line) or for children (23.9 percent).

And if these numbers weren’t upsetting enough on their own, the Justice Policy Institute just published this study that makes the connection between those facing economic hardship and those who end up incarcerated.

Poverty does not create crime, nor is limited wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system; however, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail. And the effects of an economic crisis like the one we are now experiencing are magnified for people with less income and wealth.

For this reason, the Justice Policy Institute chose to explore the connection between poverty and incarceration. Crime is down across the country, yet arrests and prison populations continue to increase, and disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.

Later, the report notes:

Across the country, people of color and those of lower-income are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than other racial and ethnic groups or people with higher income, despite similar offense-rates.

But where do we put our resources? According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (as quoted in the study), the budget item that grew the fastest for states between 2005 and 2009 was corrections (25.3 percent), more than elementary and secondary education (24.1 percent) and higher education (18.2 percent).

As I’ve noted before, the prison population has exploded in recent years, both in West Virginia and nationally. I’ve also wondered whether we can continue to afford to throw more money at the incarceration aspect of corrections. Here’s the Justice Policy Institute’s conclusion:

The use of incarceration and the justice system as a response to social problems is destructive, ripping families apart and having devastating impacts on communities of color and low-income communities. We must invest in policies and programs that prevent people from coming into contact with the justice system in the first place. A future where people feel safe and have the opportunities and resources to flourish must first be imagined in order to be achieved. The best public safety strategy will build strong communities of healthy, engaged children, and employed adults who have access to quality healthcare, education, housing, and supportive services that are affordable, and where people are treated fairly and respectfully by the justice system.