For those of us who've kept up with our criminal justice system the past three decades, the numbers I'm about to share are neither surprising nor shocking, but they do paint a startling picture of the impact our high incarceration rate is having on individuals, families and our society as a whole.
In a report issued last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts, researchers document the scale of incarceration in the United States and its direct effect on the earning power of former inmates and their children. "Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility" also breaks down the impact that imprisonment has on those of different races.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the report says — a 300 percent increase since 1980.
While the costs of housing prisoners — $50 billion annually for state correctional costs alone — should be enough to cause us to rethink our way of doing things, the overall societal and human costs should be even more convincing.
According to the study, 1 in 87 working-age white men is in prison or jail, compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 12 African-American men. More 20- to 34-year-old African-American men without a high school diploma or equivalency are behind bars (37 percent) than employed (26 percent).
Perhaps most disturbing are the 2.7 million American children who have a parent behind bars. That is a massive increase from 25 years ago, when 1 in 125 kids had an incarcerated parent compared with 1 in 28 today. And "two-thirds of these children's parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses," the report says.
According to the study, 1 in 9 African-American children (11.4 percent), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and 1 in 57 white children (1.8 percent) have a parent who is incarcerated.
We've known for some time that imprisonment makes it tough for individuals to find jobs or housing once they are released. The report notes that serving time reduces hourly wages for men by 11 percent, annual employment by nine weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent. By age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.
Before being imprisoned, more than two-thirds of male inmates had jobs and more than half were the primary source of financial support for their children, the study shows. When a released inmate can't take care of his family, guess who bears the costs?
The study notes that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are much more likely than other kids to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared with 4 percent).
The study didn't just note problems but offered solutions, such as: proactively reconnecting former inmates to the labor market; helping their economic condition by capping the percent of offenders' income subject to deductions for court-ordered fines, fees, etc.; screening and sorting convicted people by the risks they pose to society; and shortening prison stays by the use of earned-time credits.
As a society, we must come up with an alternative to lifetime punishment for those who make mistakes. Otherwise, we're dooming a large number of offenders and their children to a lifetime of failure.