In summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the human toll and the fiscal burden of the nation’s prisons, highlighting the long overdue need for prison reform.

By Kevin Klowden, Special to Calmatters

 Kevin Klowden is executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics, kklowden@milkeninstitute.org.

As the incidence of infection from COVID-19 ebbs and flows across the country, the role of the nation’s prisons in exacerbating the pandemic has been given short shrift.

Before the most recent spike in cases, the top five hotspots in the country were all prisons. Not only was a significant population exposed to the virus due to sentencing changes resulting in overcrowded prisons, but a lack of commitment to rehabilitation will continue to limit former inmates’ ability to contribute to our nation’s economic recovery.

With hindsight, none of this should have been a surprise. As political leaders outbid each other in efforts to appear tough on crime in the 1980s, 25 states and the federal government enacted “three strikes” sentencing laws that sharply increased sentences for repeat offenders. The U.S. incarceration rate more than tripled between 1980 and 2008, the year the figure peaked before tailing off.

Not surprisingly, costs increased in tandem with the rush to “lock them up.” Combined local, state and federal spending on incarceration currently exceeds $180 billion per year, 89% of which is borne by states and localities. 

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The pandemic is adding to this human and fiscal burden, with more than 160,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 1,000 deaths already reported among prisoners and prison workers. Although the decision to release some inmates early has eased this pressure, prisoners remain especially vulnerable. In fact, the failure to halt the spread in California’s prisons has actually hurt firefighting efforts in the state due to a misguided reliance on prisoners to cover a state shortfall in firefighting crews.

The costs of incarceration multiply with a full accounting. A 2016 study estimated the aggregate burden at about $1 trillion, or 6% of U.S. GDP. More than 2 million working-age adults are out of the workforce and generate negligible economic output, and former inmates frequently drop out of the workforce because they cannot find jobs. Even those who do work often earn less than poverty wages. In 2018, with overall unemployment near historic lows, formerly incarcerated individuals aged 25-44 faced a jobless rate of 27.3%. Almost half of former prisoners report no earnings for the first several years after leaving prison, and about a quarter earn less than $10,000 per year.

The employment challenges facing former prisoners can largely be attributed to a lack of rehabilitation, including limited educational opportunities during incarceration. About two-thirds of all state prison inmates have not graduated high school, placing them at a daunting disadvantage even before accounting for the social stigma they face in the job market.

Beyond the costs of supporting formerly incarcerated individuals, states also lose out on potential tax revenue. Given the added budget pressures created by COVID-19, they should confront the challenge with a dual commitment: reducing prison sentences and helping former inmates rejoin the workforce.

Fortunately, some promising remedies are already on the table. One consists of addressing the educational disparity by helping prisoners complete their secondary education. Training programs in Chicago, Cleveland and Houston have provided tangible benefits, raising the employment rate of released prisoners by 20 percentage points and substantially reducing recidivism by increasing wages. For workers in California whose primary training has been in firefighting, they should be rewarded with eligibility to fill much-needed permanent firefighting positions at a living wage.

Another way to facilitate employment is to remove restrictions on former prisoners while they are on parole or probation. In New York, the Less Is More Act would revise parole procedures used to send violators back to prison – this group, by the way, accounts for two-fifths of the state’s prison population. A similar rationale led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to propose limiting parole restrictions to two years, and a parallel proposal to reduce probation terms is before the state Assembly.

The practical and moral disaster of America’s callous, short-sighted treatment of prisoners in general and drug offenders in particular was staring us in the face decades before COVID-19 struck. It would be a modest comfort – but comfort nonetheless – if the virus serves as a catalyst to action long overdue.

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