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Todd Belcore

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Judges Without Gavels: The Life Sentence of Economic Hardship Imposed on Individuals Who Have Been Incarcerated

Posted: 12/03/10 04:53 PM ET

Every day, someone's child, best friend, neighbor, beloved relative, or sole caretaker is being sentenced to a prison term to hold them accountable for breaking the law. Upon release from prison, they are expected to contribute to society and resume providing the necessary emotional and financial support for their children, family, loved ones, and friends.

This outcome, however, assumes that people who complete their given sentence have paid their debt to society and will no longer be punished for their mistake. Several studies have proven that assumption wrong.

The fact is that, even after an individual has paid their debt to society, society, without the authority granted by a gavel, functionally imposes a life sentence of economic hardship on those who have been incarcerated.

This phenomenon is statistically borne out by a report recently released by Pew Charitable Trusts. The report shows that individuals who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid than they were prior to their incarceration (termed "collateral costs").

If society is responsible for imposing the life sentence of economic hardship, then employers are the ones who dutifully ensure that individuals who have been incarcerated serve out their sentence. Studies conclusively show that individuals with criminal records are far more likely to be subject to systemic employment discrimination. A study performed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that 65% of employers surveyed refuse to hire individuals with criminal records--regardless of the offense on the individual's record. That percentage is extraordinarily significant given that a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 7% of employers do not conduct criminal background checks for any of their applicants. These practices have a direct impact on the likelihood that an individual who has been incarcerated will be able to get any job at all. In fact, another NIJ study found that as many as 60% of individuals who were incarcerated are not able to find any job, at any point, a full year after their release.

Even when persons who have been incarcerated are able to find jobs, they are significantly more likely to be underemployed and underpaid than they were before their incarceration. As a result, people who have been incarcerated earn 40% less per year than they would have earned prior to their incarceration, according to the Pew Report.

The Pew Report also revealed that people who have been incarcerated are permitted to work an average of 9 fewer weeks (more than two months fewer) than people who have not been incarcerated. Even though they are employed, they are less likely to have the stability, respect of their loved ones and peers, and peace of mind that comes with continuous employment. They are also less likely to be in a position to move up the ladder at a given job and earn more money to improve their situation.

Moreover, even when people who have been incarcerated are working enough, they get paid less for the same jobs than they would have received prior to their conviction. The Pew Report found that they earn 11% less per hour.

Given these statistics, it is clear that individuals who have been incarcerated are systematically forced to endure economic hardship. The Pew Report precisely quantifies the extent of that economic hardship by considering how the collateral costs (systematically being underpaid, unemployed and underemployed) impaired the economic mobility of an individual who had been incarcerated in 1986 versus the affect the collateral costs had on that same group 2006.

In 1986, a person in the bottom fifth of the income distribution was making less than $7,800 per year. The vast majority of the formerly incarcerated men making less than $7,800 in 1986 were still in the bottom fifth of the income distribution 20 years later (67%). The study determined that people who had been incarcerated and were in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in 1986 only had a 2% chance of moving into the top fifth of income distribution 20 years later. Therefore, it is clearly more difficult for people who have been incarcerated to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" than it is for individuals who have not been incarcerated.

Significantly, the Report also finds that these collateral costs adversely affect not only the financial and social prospects of the individuals who were incarcerated, but they also profoundly impact the likelihood that the individual will pay any restitution owed victims and the financial and social prospects of the individual with the criminal record's children and family. Numerous studies show that children whose parents either are or were incarcerated are more likely to suffer from physical or verbal abuse, get suspended or expelled from school, drop out of school, or become pregnant as a minor. With few educational and financial prospects, these children are more likely to become incarcerated themselves--thereby perpetuating the cycle. Consequently, these collateral costs cripple not only the individual with the criminal record, they too often end up crippling entire families for generations.
These collateral costs, perpetuated by societal stigma which is often manifested in systematic employment discrimination, unnecessarily put our friends, children, families, relatives and neighbors at risk of being victimized, resorting to criminal activity, or being mired in the lowest economic wrung for generations. Given that unacceptable risk, more must be done to address this issue.