In case you haven't seen enough unsettling data confirming the cross-over between crime, poverty and race in America, here’s the very latest.
The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has recently published a policy memo that details the socioeconomic roots of America’s attachment to incarceration and the role government policy plays in the trends. As usual, it’s bad news for America’s poorest. It’s especially bad news for America’s poorest black youth, who inexorably enter a world where they’re not only more likely to become instigators in the vicious cycle of jail and poverty, but also more likely to fall victim to it.
Here are the 10 big findings from the report.
10 A youth prison sentence marks you for life.
A 2013 study employed real judges to estimate hypothetical verdicts against the same crimes committed by adults with and without a youth prison sentence. Those with a youth prison sentence had a definitively greater likelihood of facing jail time. Jailed youth also have a 13% greater chance of failing to complete high school, a 15% greater chance of being jailed for violent crimes and a 22% chance of being jailed as adults.
9 By their 14th birthday, black children whose fathers lack a high school diploma are more likely than not to see their fathers incarcerated.
A black child born to uneducated black parents in America can reasonably expect to see their father put in jail before they hit puberty. And since about half of parents in American prisons remain their family’s financial supporters while making little to nothing, child support debts grow and cast a shadow over families’ financial futures. In the end, it’s the children that pay.
8 US spending on prisons has tripled in the last 30 years.
In real terms, each U.S. citizen spent about $260 on jailing fellow Americans in 2010, which is nearly four times more than they spent thirty years ago. At $80 billion total, correctional expenditures are 350% higher since 1980, to satisfy a growing prison rate which dwarfs the country’s population growth.
7 A black man without a high school diploma has nearly a 70% chance of going to jail by his mid-thirties; the chance is 50% lower if he's white.
While prison is practically unthinkable for most well-off Americans, for certain groups it’s a living reality. Even in the 21st century, black men without a diploma face a better chance of being in prison than being employed, and that “pre-mid-thirties” condition implies a far greater cumulative risk of being jailed over a lifetime. The odds of a white American male without a diploma being jailed before his mid-thirties is a full 53% lower than for a black American male.
6 America’s incarceration rate is 6 times the OECD average.
The typical global incarceration rate is 130 per 100,000 people; OECD nations’ tend to be even less; America’s is 710. Higher rates of violent crime in America offer only a partial explanation, but severe drug control policies and incomparable prison sentences dominate the picture.
5 Government policies have fueled the rate of imprisonment in the last 30 years.
Increases in crime fail to tally with America’s current unusually high incarceration rate. On the other hand, the likelihood that an offender will serve a prison sentence and the length of the sentence itself has grown for every kind of crime. Federal and state legislation like the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the three strikes policy, and some form of mandatory minimums found in all fifty states have established a “tough on crime” paradigm that practices incarceration as the primary solution to trends which are attached to deeply ingrained socioeconomic disparities. High recidivism rates demonstrate that rehabilitation is not a successful feature of this system.
4 Disadvantaged youths engage in riskier criminal behaviour.
While the likelihood of young people committing drug-related offenses remains constant between low income and high income families, the tendency for poorer youth to commit thefts or violent crimes is substantially higher. In turbulent adolescent years, lack of employment and education opportunities is often a decisive factor in resorting to crime for economic security.
3 Most criminal offenders are younger than 30.
Formative years happen to be the most crime-heavy. Over a quarter of citizens involved in reported crimes are between the ages of 11 and 20, and over a third are between 21 and 30. People under thirty commit 55% of crimes against persons (i.e. violent or sexual crimes), and 66% of weapon law violations. Taken in the context of a sub-par rehabilitatory system and a high re-offense rate, this means that most convicted criminals in America are likely to go on to be lifelong offenders.
2 Low-income citizens are more likely than higher-income citizens to be victims of crime.
While the statistics show that the poorest tend towards crime the most, crime also tends the most towards them. The victimization rate for poor families was three times greater than upper-middle class families in 2008, of which the greatest crimes were assault and acts of violence. Crime in America remains largely contained within boundaries of income segregation — poor communities where poverty and crime flourishes and become culturally normalized among a certain socioeconomic group. Naturally, victimization also breeds culprits.
1 Crime rates have steadily declined over the past 25 years.
And after all that, here’s the kicker: Where every other figure feels like the crest of the wave, America’s crime rate is nearly half what it was in the 80s and nearly as low as the 1960s. The most sweeping explanation remains the decline of violence around the 80s drug epidemic and increased policing (which, arguably, pushes crime underground as well as it deters it). But the national crime rate blunts the sharper crime scenes in and around poor neighbourhoods, many of which actually show elevated rates of certain criminal activity and supply an unequal amount of the nation’s prisoners. Is that how a country incarcerates three times more citizens during a thirty-year low in crime?