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A Win-Win on Prison Reform

by kevin klowden

kevin klowden is the executive director of the Milken Institute’s Center for Regional Economics and California Center.

Published August 27, 2020


As the incidence of infection from Covid-19 ebbs and flows across the country, much attention has been paid to pandemic nodes ranging from bars to nursing homes to meat processing plants. To our shame, however, the role of the nation’s prisons in exacerbating the pandemic has been given short shrift. Before the most recent spike in cases, the top five hotspots in the country were all prisons. Not only did sentencing changes that resulted in overcrowded prisons expose a significant population to the virus in the short term, but also a lack of commitment to rehabilitation limits the ability of former inmates to contribute to our nation’s economic recovery.

The Hidden Disaster

With hindsight, none of this should have been a surprise. As political leaders outbid each other in efforts to appear tough on crime in the 1980s, 25 states and the federal government enacted “three strikes” sentencing laws that sharply increased sentences for repeat offenders. The U.S. incarceration rate more than tripled between 1980 and 2008, the year the figure peaked before tailing off.

Not surprisingly, costs increased in tandem with the rush to “lock them up.” Combined local, state and federal spending on incarceration currently exceeds $180 billion per year, 89 percent of which is borne by states and localities.

The pandemic is adding to this human and fiscal burden, with over 70,000 cases of Covid-19 and at least 600 deaths already reported among prisoners and prison workers. The costs of treating the virus in overcrowded prisons only gilded the poisonous lily created by the burden of caring for a swollen, rapidly aging prison population. Although the decision to release some inmates early in the spread of the virus has eased this pressure, prisoners remain especially vulnerable. In fact, the failure to halt the virus early in California’s prisons and the subsequent release of many of those prisoners has actually hurt firefighting efforts in the state due to a misguided reliance on prisons to cover a state shortfall in firefighting crews.

The costs of incarceration multiply when a full accounting is made. Over two million working-age adults are out of the workforce and generate negligible economic output while in prison. These indirect economic costs dwarf the direct costs of maintaining the prison archipelago: a 2016 study estimated incarceration’s aggregate burden at around $1 trillion, or 6 percent of U.S. GDP.

Wait, it gets worse. There is strong evidence that former inmates frequently drop out of the workforce because they cannot find jobs and that even those who do work often earn less than poverty wages. In 2018, with overall unemployment near historic lows, formerly incarcerated individuals aged 25-44 faced a jobless rate of 27.3 percent. Almost half of former prisoners report no earnings for the first several years after leaving prison, and around a quarter earn less than $10,000 per year.

Given the added budget pressures many governments now face because of Covid-19, states should confront the challenge with a dual commitment: reducing prison sentences and helping former inmates rejoin the workforce.

The employment challenges facing former prisoners can largely be attributed to a lack of rehabilitation, including limited educational opportunities while they are still in prison. Around two-thirds of all state prison inmates have not graduated high school, placing them at a daunting disadvantage even before accounting for the social stigma they face in the job market.

This failure hits states coming and going. On the one hand, they face substantial costs of supporting formerly incarcerated individuals with food, housing and medical assistance. On the other, they lose potential tax revenue. Given the added budget pressures many governments now face because of Covid-19, states should confront the challenge with a dual commitment: reducing prison sentences and helping former inmates rejoin the workforce.

Making Amends

Fortunately, some good ideas for getting from here to there are already on the table. One promising fix consists of addressing the educational disparity by helping prisoners complete their secondary education. Training programs in Chicago, Cleveland and Houston have provided tangible benefits, raising the employment rate of released prisoners by 20 percentage points and substantially reducing recidivism by increasing wages. In addition, for those workers in California whose primary training has been in firefighting, the need to reward those workers by making them eligible to fill much needed permanent firefighting positions at a living wage is paramount in the wake of the historic recent wildfires in the state.

Another way to facilitate employment is to remove restrictions on former prisoners while they are on parole or probation. In New York, the Less Is More Act would revise parole procedures used to send violators back to prison — this group, by the way, accounts for two-fifths of the state’s prison population. A similar rationale led California Governor Newsom to propose limiting parole restrictions to two years, and a parallel proposal to reduce probation terms is before the State Assembly.

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The practical and moral disaster of America’s callous, short-sighted treatment of prisoners in general and drug offenders in particular was staring us in the face decades before Covid-19 struck. It would be a modest comfort — but comfort nonetheless — if the virus serves as a catalyst to action long overdue.

main topic: Law & Order