Prisons and policing prioritized over people during economic crisis
“With the focus this fall on effective leadership, it’s time for our elected officials to realize that creating safe, healthy communities is a better investment in our country’s future than more prison beds,” stated Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Low-income communities and people of color are bearing the brunt of this recession, as well as of our policies that have led to mass incarceration. By shifting our priorities, we can reduce these disproportionate impacts and make a real difference, especially for our country’s children and families.”
Money Well Spent: How positive social investments will reduce incarceration rates, improve public safety, and promote the well-being of communities, examines the relationship between poverty and involvement in the justice system. Using the District of Columbia as a case study to illustrate national concerns, the report focuses on the nexus of public safety and poverty: while poverty doesn’t cause crime, more low-income people end up in prison or jail. And while spending on education, treatment, and other services that help people improve their well-being have been shown to be a more effective public safety strategy than locking people up, between 2005 and 2009 state spending on corrections grew faster than any other category, including education, Medicaid and public assistance such as TANF.
‘It’s a question of where we choose to spend our money,” said Velázquez. “Until we quit funneling tax dollars into prisons and policing practices that sweep large numbers of people into the system — many of whom pose little risk to public safety — we should not be surprised to see incarceration rates continue to climb. What this report shows is that we could better spend our money on things like education, treatment, and jobs, especially for people in low-income communities that are really struggling right now.”
The report also notes that as prison populations have grown, so too have racial disparities in the justice system; this is especially evident in arrest and incarceration patterns for drug offenses. Despite comparable usage of illicit drugs, in 2008 African Americans, who make up 12.2 percent of the general population, comprised 44 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses. The report notes that disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in communities of color destabilizes families and communities and decreases the likelihood of positive outcomes for children and other family members left behind.
“Without adequate funding for social services, it is less likely that people will be able to succeed and avoid contact with the justice system,” noted Sarah Lyons, National Emerson Hunger Fellow and primary author of the report. “Investments in housing, education, mental health services, and job training have been shown to improve public safety, reduce the risk of involvement with the justice system and promote the well-being of communities. Providing services and treatment options now will improve public safety, improve individual life outcomes, and help build strong, healthier communities. We can only hope that policymakers will base their decisions on research and evidence and start spending taxpayer dollars wisely.”
Other key findings from the report include:
- Laws criminalizing homelessness only serve to reinforce the cycles of poverty and homelessness. About 16 percent of incarcerated people experienced homelessness prior to arrest, and most of these people are significantly more likely to have both a mental illness and a substance addiction, which frequently go untreated in the community.
- States with higher high school graduation rates and college enrollment have lower crime rates than states with lower educational attainment levels.
- The stress of living in poverty is a risk factor for experiencing mental health problems, and many people who want treatment can’t afford it. Over half of people in prisons and jails report mental illness of some kind, compared to 25 percent of the general population. Investing in appropriate mental health and substance abuse treatment can improve public safety and reduce criminal justice involvement.
- Investments in job training and employment have been associated with heightened public safety. Youth who are employed are more likely to avoid justice involvement. In addition, people who are incarcerated are more likely to report having had extended periods of unemployment and lower wages than people in the general population.
By shifting priorities, fewer people will end up in the justice system — especially expensive “deep end” institutions like prisons and juvenile correctional facilities — reducing the future drain on state budgets and allowing states to focus on services and systems that benefit citizens.
JPI’s recommendations in the report include:
Rather than expending police resources on quality of life offenses that are often directed at low-income communities and people who are homeless, focus law enforcement efforts on the most serious offenses. Reducing the number of arrests and subsequent detentions of people for low-level and quality of life offenses is a better use of public resources intended to maintain public safety.
Address practices that create racial and income disparities in arrest and incarceration. States and localities should evaluate policies that target people of color and those of lower-income despite similar offense rates across racial and socioeconomic lines.
Increase access and funding for affordable and supportive housing. Stable, affordable housing is key to education, employment and access to other social programs and services and can increase quality of life for people struggling with homelessness, including children and youth, who are particularly affected by lack of housing.
Improve access to quality education for all children and invest in special education services for children who need it. All youth, regardless of race or income-level should get a quality education. As youth with special education needs may be more likely to end up in the justice system, providing early education specifically tailored to these children can help improve graduation rates and the likelihood of success later in life.
Invest in afterschool and recreational programs for youth. Afterschool activities, mentoring programs, and employment increase a youth’s academic, social, and emotional well-being and reduce the risk of involvement in illegal behaviors.
Improve systems of community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment. Providing treatment to people before they come into contact with the justice system can help increase public safety, improve the lives of individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems, and save money in the long run. Treatment based in the community is both more effective and more cost-effective than treatment in the justice system. Additionally, the majority of youth in the juvenile justice system either have a mental health problem or have experienced trauma. Focusing efforts on proper mental health care for youth can reduce the propensity for future justice system involvement.
Increase employment opportunities for those who most need them. Access to job training for people in lower-income communities can open doors to more jobs and careers, leading to better life outcomes and less justice-involvement. Youth employment programs encourage youth and teach responsibility and other marketable skills they need to be competitive in the job market. And as having a job is one of the most important keys to success after release from prison, removing legal barriers and creating incentives for employers to hire formerly incarcerated people can reap both individual and social benefits.
To read a brief specifically focused on the relationship between poverty and incarceration in D.C., please read JPI’s A Capitol Concern: The disproportionate impact of the justice system on low-Income communities in D.C.
For more on JPI’s research, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org. The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.