URBAN AGENDA: Ending the Poverty to Prison Pipeline

Jennifer Jones Austin, Esq. | 3/22/2018, midnight
As James Baldwin noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is ...
Jennifer Jones Austin

As James Baldwin noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In 2018, we must face the stark reality that being Black or Latino in America drastically increases the chances that you or someone you know will be incarcerated—and that being low-income and Black or Latino makes this possibility far more likely than not. The factors that connect incarceration, poverty, and communities of color are well documented: 80% of all incarcerated persons in the U.S. hail from low-income communities, while 67% of the total incarcerated population come from communities of color—two facts that make the nexus between race, poverty and justice involvement irrefutable in America today.

Many of us are familiar with the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” the alarming national trend in which predominantly low-income children of color are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system as a result of overly harsh disciplinary actions for minor infractions in school. Such disciplinary practices mean low-income children get caught up in the justice system at an early age, disrupting educational and other lifetime opportunities, and creating a pipeline from schools to prisons to poverty. A punitive financial backdrop reinforces this cycle, burdening justice-involved families with excessive fees and fines that can keep low-income families in debt, incarcerated, and even re-incarcerated.

But the school-to-prison phenomenon is really just a subset of a larger and more pervasive reality—the “Poverty-to-Prison Pipeline” that disproportionally affects low-income communities of color.

First, here’s how low-income communities often experience the U.S. justice system. Once jailed or imprisoned, the challenges of being low-income are only exacerbated: low-income, justice-involved families often face a loss of household income while legal expenses, court fines, and justice system-related debts accumulate. This phenomenon, which has been described as a de facto “debtors’ prison,” impacts some 10 million Americans who owe an estimated $50 billion in court debt. Not surprisingly, justice-involved families with little income and high debt burdens experience greater economic instability, higher levels of housing insecurity, and have trouble meeting basic needs—a reality for 65% of all justice-involved families surveyed.

This poverty-to-prison pipeline has devastating impacts on family life, as well. Family separation during incarceration disrupts parent-child relationships, breaks apart families, and causes traumas that often go undocumented and untreated. Complementing this negative dynamic, research tells us that childhood poverty has a significant impact on crime commitment rates, with young people living in poverty committing crimes at significantly higher rates than their peers in higher-income areas. This connection between poverty and crime plays out more broadly, too, as an estimated 40% of all crimes (from felonies to misdemeanors) can be attributed to living in poverty, underscoring the cyclical nature of the poverty-to-prison pipeline.

The situation is even more harrowing for low-income communities of color. Being Black, Latino, low-income, and formerly incarcerated can be a devastating combination for individuals who have served time and return to their communities only to encounter severe social penalties for having been justice involved. Low-income people of color with criminal records have difficulty finding employment, earning a living wage, securing affordable housing, and accessing higher education. The formerly incarcerated can even be stripped of basic civil rights, with some two million African Americans declared ineligible to vote across the U.S.