To help the recently incarcerated overcome hiring bias, programs such as the Center for Employment Opportunities assemble them into work crews, paid at fair rates. (Photo: Center for Employment Opportunities)
Thanks to our harsh criminal justice policies and anti-drug laws, an extraordinary number of Americans will spend some part of their lives in the prison system.
As a society, we're finally starting to rethink the policies driving the explosion in imprisonment: the "tough on crime" measures that have shattered communities and families for over a generation. Some states have sought to cut prison populations to curb the massive cost of incarceration. Yet the economics of prison policy cut deeper than corrections budgets. The plight of those released back into society after doing time reveal the the underlying collateral damage: a gaping economic hole.<
No one knows exactly how much mass incarceration has cost communities in social and economic losses, but there's no doubt it has contributed to the unraveling of economically marginalized communities. Not only does incarceration take people out of the workforce, but for many, the sentence never ends: The prison system places shackles of stigma and discrimination on hundreds of thousands of people it releases each year. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, incarceration lowers the total earnings of blacks and Latino men more severely compared to white men, and the economic drain is deepened by the forgone wages that may be irrevocably lost during years spent behind bars.
Once people get out of prison, staying out can be all but impossible. Since communities hit hardest by over-imprisonment typically suffer from low social cohesion, poverty and high joblessness, the formerly incarcerated return home to daunting hardships. And when they try to play by the rules and seek jobs, they get slapped by widespread hiring bias from employers. That's on top of the overall setbacks to employability linked to long periods of incarceration, like a lack of up-to-date job skills and educational credentials.