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Mass Incarceration and Systemic Poverty

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

The issue of Mass Incarceration is linked to many other challenges and issues facing our society today. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of systemic poverty. Saint Augustine lived in a time not unlike ours when officials were struggling with how to respond to crime. Like our country today, these questions came in the midst of an increasing gap between the rich and the poor where only a small minority benefitted from the riches of the country and the work of laborers. Through his writings, Augustine continually invited judges and other leaders to consider these factors and exercise compassion when determining how to respond to crime. Below are some thoughts on how Saint Augustine‘s teachings on crime in his own day invites us to consider a more restorative approach to the issue of crime in our country today.

Half of Americans have had a loved one incarcerated.[1]  The rate of U.S. incarceration has increased 500% since 1980.  Yet, two out of every three people released from prison still end up committing another crime, perpetuating the cycle of crime and its impacts on all of us.[2]

Criminologists consistently point to economic and educational inequality as key contributors to crime in communities.[3]  Further, studies consistently show that prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime, as prison environments often enable incarcerated persons to learn more effective crime strategies and desensitizes them to the threat of future imprisonment.[4]  The solution lies in crime prevention which begins with leveling the socioeconomic and educational playing field.

Incarceration does little to fix these key contributors to crime, namely poverty and educational inequality.  80% of the incarcerated earned less than $15K per year prior to arrest.  70% did not have a High School diploma.[5]  This has created what has been known as the “poverty-to-prison” pipeline.  The U.S. further perpetuates this condition by prioritizing funding for incarcerating people over other programs that are proven to deter crime, namely education.  Over the past 33 years, spending for K-12 education has increased only a third of what spending on corrections has.[6]  As a result, only a little over 25% of state inmates report having earned a GED while incarcerated.[7]  Consequently, only 20% of those who are released from prison end up earning an annual salary of more than $15,000.[8] Children of the incarcerated are six times more likely to face incarceration, further perpetuating the cycle of crime and risk of incarceration among those populations of people already impacted.[9]

The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluities, you possess what belongs to others.

Saint Augustine

Exposition on Psalm 147, 12


[1] Cornell University, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/03/study-nearly-half-americans-have-had-family-member-jailed-imprisoned

[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics, https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/2018-update-prisoner-recidivism-9-year-follow-period-2005-2014 and Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/recidivism_and_reentry/

[3] Equal Justice Initiative, https://eji.org/news/study-finds-increased-incarceration-does-not-reduce-crime/.

[4] Department of Justice, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247350.pdf

[5] The Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looneyincarceration_final.pdf

[6] Department of Education.  “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education.”  Ed.gov.  https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/expenditures-corrections-education/brief.pdf

[7] The Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Education and Correctional Populations.” BJS.Gov. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ecp.pdf

[8] The Brookings Institute. “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration.” Brookings.edu. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/es_20180314_looneyincarceration_final.pdf

[9] National Institute of Justice, https://www.nij.gov/journals/278/Pages/impact-of-incarceration-on-dependent-children.aspx

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