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Conviction, Imprisonment, and Lost Earnings: Involvement with the Justice System Deepens Inequality

Breannan Center: Terry-Ann Craigie, Ames Grawert, and Cameron Kimble - September 15, 2020

America’s 400-year history of racial injustice continues to produce profound economic inequalities — a reality our society must no longer ignore. The net worth of a typical white family, for example, is 10 times that of a typical Black family. Shockingly, despite the successes of the civil rights movement, this racial wealth gap has barely changed in the last half century.

This report examines the long-term economic effects of conviction and imprisonment. It demonstrates that people involved in the criminal justice system tend to earn significantly less over the course of their lives than otherwise would be the case. Among other factors, missed opportunities, inadequate reentry services, and social stigma contribute to this link between imprisonment and poverty. The consequences, at both an individual and a systemic level, are dire.

To reach these conclusions, the report starts by identifying how many of the more than 70 million people with criminal records have become involved with the criminal justice system in each of three discrete ways: through imprisonment, conviction of a felony without subsequent imprisonment, and conviction of a misdemeanor.

Then it assesses how each interaction depresses individuals’ earnings. Last, the report uses an innovative method to illustrate how the reduction in earnings persists over a lifetime, deepening poverty — particularly for Black and Latino people.

Specifically, this Report Finds the Following:

Conviction and imprisonment affect more people, in more serious ways, than was previously realized. Using data through 2017, this report concludes that about 7.7 million living Americans have at some point been imprisoned, about 12.1 million have been convicted of a felony without being imprisoned for it, and about 45 million have been convicted of at least one misdemeanor. (Due to data limitations, some overlap may exist between these categories.)

Conviction and imprisonment experienced early in life lower individuals’ annual earnings.

  • People who have spent time in prison suffer the greatest losses, with their subsequent annual earnings reduced by an average of 52 percent.

  • People convicted of a felony but not imprisoned for it see their annual earnings reduced by an average of 22 percent.

  • People convicted of a misdemeanor see their annual earnings reduced by an average of 16 percent.

These earnings losses entrench poverty. The reduced earnings compound over the course of a lifetime. On average, formerly imprisoned people earn nearly half a million dollars less over their careers than they might have otherwise. These losses are borne disproportionately by people already living in poverty, and they help perpetuate it.

These earnings losses worsen economic disparities between Black, Latino, and white communities. White people who have a prison record see their earnings trend upwards, while formerly imprisoned Black and Latino people experience a relatively flat earnings trajectory. Because Black and Latino people are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system, these economic effects are concentrated in their communities and exacerbate the racial wealth gap.

Throughout this report, estimates of the effects of criminal justice involvement were produced by comparing people who have experienced imprisonment, felony conviction without prison, or misdemeanor conviction with people who have had no such experience but otherwise closely resemble them. Members of these comparison groups are referred to intermittently as “similarly situated people” or “peers” of justice-involved people.

To read the full report, click here.

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