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February 19, 2013 (The New York Times)

Prison and the Poverty Trap

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

People who are incarcerated serve significantly more time in the United States than in most industrialized countries, according to a report by The Sentencing Project. The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before, remaining incarcerated into middle age and old age, well beyond the peak age for crime.

Sociologist s link the causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency to the incarceration of parents and calculate that if the mass incarceration trend had not occurred in recent decades, the poverty rate would be 20 percent lower today, and that five million fewer people would have fallen below the poverty line.

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration, Racial Disparity, Collateral Consequences