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by Elliot Oberholtzer, August 23, 2017

In a recent post, I noted that disabled people1 are significantly overrepresented in prisons and jails. This statistic is part of a larger pattern: disabled people are overrepresented in all interactions with the criminal justice system, and at all points, that system is failing them.

The Center for American Progress released a report last year that provides a strong overview of the ways that disabled people are targeted by — and failed by — the criminal justice system, from policing to courts to incarceration. In this article, I will bring in additional information and context to elaborate on the points made in that report.

Police escalate to deadly force

Disabled people represent a disproportionate number of those stopped, arrested, and murdered by police. This is partially because, as the ACLU of Southern California and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law report, the “war on drugs” and other mass incarceration policies criminalize behaviors related to disability: substance use (which is often a method of self-medication for pain and other symptoms), homelessness (as of 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 78% of people in shelters had a disability), and atypical reactions to social cues (which may be interpreted as “disorderly conduct”). Societal attitudes towards disabled people, and the intersections of disability, race, and class, contribute to their criminalization: the Ruderman Foundation reports that in police use-of-force incidents, media and police often blame disabled people for their own victimization, especially by characterizing disabled people of color as “threatening” and “refusing to comply” with instructions.

The police are often the first responders to a person in crisis. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that 124 cases of officer shootings (27% of all officer shootings that year) involved a mental health crisis; in 36% of those cases, the officers were explicitly called to help the person get medical treatment, and shot them instead. Despite their frequent role in mental health crises, police response is deeply inadequate, and experts agree that not only do police need better training, but their role in crisis response needs to be entirely reconsidered.

As long as we continue to rely on militarized police forces to handle crises, instead of social workers, mental health response teams, and other trained professionals, police will continue to escalate situations to deadly force. And disabled people, specifically disabled people of color, will continue to lose their lives.

Courts refuse accommodations

If disabled people survive their encounter with the police, they are also disadvantaged by the court system. Disabled people struggle to access the services necessary to make the court system intelligible to them: in 2014, a Deaf man whose first language was Ethiopian Sign Language was denied an interpreter in his court cases and in jail, leading to six weeks of jail time for a crime he did not commit (Washington Post). This incident is by no means unique: the Center for American Progress reports that “a lack of accessibility and a failure to provide needed accommodations are widespread throughout the nation’s courts.”

Given the data showing that disabled people experience violent victimization at significantly higher rates than non-disabled people, the failure of accessibility in our courts is not only a concern for disabled people charged with crimes, but also for disabled people who want to use the courts to address offenses against them. A 2015 survey of New York City courts found multiple barriers to equal participation for disabled litigants, jurors, attorneys, and court employees, as well as criminal defendants. And as the Supreme Court observed in 2004, “failure to accommodate persons with disabilities will often have the same practical effect as outright exclusion.”

There is also evidence to suggest that the court system may not be the right way to handle the majority of disabled people’s offenses at all. Alternatives such as mental health courts, which include access to mental health care before appearing in court, have been shown in California to improve quality of life, decrease psychological distress, and reduce recidivism among mentally ill offenders when compared to traditional courts. Similarly, Portugal’s “dissuasion commission” model of handling drug possession/consumption offenses, which involves a case team of health, social service, and legal professionals who work together to provide addiction counseling and assess treatment options, has been shown to significantly reduce substance dependency, risky behaviors such as injection (which can lead to transmission of HIV/AIDS), and substance-related deaths.

For those disabled people who do need to interact with the courts, they deserve the treatment that the United States has committed to providing in the Bill of Rights: a speedy trial, legal representation, and to be informed of the nature and causes of the accusations against them. When courts fail to provide these basic rights for disabled people accused of crimes, they demonstrate clearly that our society treats disabled people as second-class citizens.

Jails function as inadequate hospitals

When disabled people are detained in jails awaiting trial or transfer to a medical facility, they are denied access to medical care, which can worsen existing health problems (including mental health crises). This can be life-threatening or even fatal: the top cause of death in local jails is suicide, which occurs in jail at much higher rates than in the general U.S. population. In 2016, Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center reported that 91% of surveyed jail personnel said that they had seriously mentally ill prisoners who required a suicide watch.

Although jails are being used as substitutes for mental health facilities, they do not have the resources or training to handle medical and mental health emergencies. Less than half (45%) of the surveyed personnel in the Public Citizen and Treatment Advocacy Center study reported that their jail was equipped to offer mental health treatment. When asked what their resources were to handle a psychiatric emergency, respondents said they had none, or that they transported prisoners to the emergency room. Despite 95% of respondents reporting that their jails frequently housed mentally ill people, only 21% reported their jail having any kind of program to support mentally ill people upon their release.

Our justice system currently incarcerates, mostly in local jails, large numbers of people who have not been convicted — or sometimes even charged — with a crime. Pretrial incarceration, which almost universally affects those who cannot afford to pay bail, has been shown to increase the likelihood of conviction regardless of the merits of the particular case; a clear undermining of the concept of a fair trial. And many disabled people housed in local jails (and experiencing the trauma of that incarceration) are not even awaiting trial; they are simply awaiting a transfer to an overcrowded hospital or other health facility. Currently the systems of pretrial incarceration and using jails as holding cells for hospital transfer are inflicting damage on disabled people, who need targeted services instead.

Prisons abuse and isolate their disabled populations

Disabled people are also disproportionately incarcerated in state and federal prisons. According to the Center for American Progress, people in state and federal prisons are three times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability. In a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 40% of state and federal prisoners reported currently having a chronic illness, a significantly higher rate than the general population. (While not everyone with a chronic illness considers themself disabled, many chronic illnesses cause serious inabilities to complete necessary tasks; for example, about 44% of people with arthritis report that it limits their ability to do things like climb a flight of stairs, bend over, or grasp small objects).

Medical care for these conditions is inconsistent: while two-thirds of participants in the BJS study were being treated, 11% reported that their illness was not being treated because the facility would not provide medication. The Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project reports cases of prisons ruling accommodations such as exercise equipment, specialized diets, prosthetics, wheelchairs, and other assistive technology no longer “medically necessary” for disabled people in an effort to cut costs. And with medical co-pays costing as much as a month’s worth of labor in some states, including states where prosthetics and other accommodations for disability incur an additional fee on top of an existing co-pay, many disabled people in prisons simply cannot afford to access the care they need.

Denying medical care is not the only abuse of disabled people in prison. Human Rights Watch suggests that use of force abuses against disabled people in prisons is “widespread and may be increasing”. The AVID Prison Project reports that disabled people in prison, particularly those with mental illnesses, are disproportionately disciplined with segregation and solitary confinement, which have been linked to suicide, self-harm, and other serious mental health consequences. Incarcerated people are a particularly vulnerable population to malpractice and abuse of authority: they have little or no ability to leave a bad situation or demand better treatment. Already in a position of deeply unequal power simply by being incarcerated, disabled people in prison are then further disadvantaged by systemic ableism.

Inadequate re-entry support undermines opportunities

The AVID Prison Project also reports that disabled people are often denied access to vocational and release planning programs while incarcerated, or placed in programs without accommodations for their disabilities. “The way it is now, I’m just basically going back out there with no skills,” said one man from Washington with a visual impairment; his facility had placed him in a community college course without giving him the visual aids he needed to keep up with the class. Another person reported that they had asked for information on how to apply for Social Security benefits once released, and been denied because their counselor thought they should seek employment instead.

Incarcerated people already face significant barriers upon re-entering society, including housing restrictions, employment discrimination, and ongoing fines and fees that represent a significant financial burden. When those difficulties are compounded by disability — especially if that disability has been worsened by neglect and abuse while incarcerated — a disabled person attempting to re-enter society after a prison stay faces almost insurmountable obstacles.


The Center for American Progress has compiled a list of recommendations for improving how disabled people interact with criminal justice systems:

The Center for American Progress has compiled a list of recommendations for improving how disabled people interact with criminal justice systems:

  • Invest in community-based services, such as outpatient treatment, peer support, case management, supportive housing, and mobile crisis teams.
  • End the criminalization of homelessness.
  • Divert disabled people from jail and courts systems to community-based services as soon as possible.
  • Improve police practices and expand training, with a focus on de-escalation tactics and trainings led by disabled people.
  • Ensure accessibility, needed accommodations, and appropriate treatment within the court system, including training for court personnel and specialized public defender units.
  • Ensure safe, accessible, and appropriate conditions behind bars, including designated ADA coordinators at all facilities, comprehensive health care (including mental health care) for all inmates, and policies to prevent use of force and sexual assault.
  • Support successful re-entry, including provision of accessible education and training behind bars, support in accessing Medicaid and other benefits,and physical and programmatic accessibility of halfway houses.

At every interaction between disabled people and the criminal justice system, it is evident how ill-suited the system is to respect disabled people’s needs. Along with widespread reform of our courts and institutions, we need to shift from viewing disabled people in crisis through a criminalization and incarceration lens to a community health approach.


A note about language

  1. This article uses “disabled person/people” as the term of choice, sometimes called identity-first language. I respect the right of any person to choose how they want to be referred to, but when speaking about disabled people as a broad category, I have decided to adhere to the social model of disability, acknowledging that disabled people are disabled by societal ableism, and that their bodies and abilities are not inherently less.  ↩

by Stephen Raher, August 15, 2017

Yesterday we filed comments with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to point out how their recently proposed amendments would inadvertently impact their regulation of financially abusive “release cards.” Release cards are prepaid debit cards that prisons and jails use (instead of checks or cash) to refund money that is owed to someone upon their release from custody (for example, accumulated wages from a prison job, or money that a person had in their possession at the time of arrest). Such cards usually cost the correctional facility nothing, but the issuing financial institution makes money by charging numerous excessive fees to the cardholder.

In 2015, the CFPB conducted a rulemaking to create greater protections for all types of prepaid cards. Prison Policy Initiative submitted comments asking the CFPB to prevent correctional facilities from forcing someone to accept a release payment in the form of a prepaid card. Although the CFPB did not adopt this recommendation, it did issue a comprehensive new rule in 2016, and in the process clarified that release cards are covered by many other consumer-protection provisions of that rule.

In June of this year, the CFPB proposed some housekeeping amendments to the 2016 rule. Although these changes are well-intentioned, we spotted some loopholes that could have unintended adverse impacts on release-card recipients. For example, the 2016 rule requires card companies to provide protections for people whose cards are subject to fraudulent use. The financial industry asked that these protections only apply if cardholders first verify their identity with the issuing bank, and the CFPB agreed to propose such a modification. This may make sense in the case of a prepaid card that someone buys at a convenience store, because the card-issuing bank has no idea who their customer is. On the other hand, when someone is released from prison and given a prepaid card, that person’s identity is already established. Forcing that person to sit on hold or go to a website to register the card makes no sense, and we pointed this out in comments we filed this week with the CFPB. Our concerns were echoed in a comment submitted jointly by the Americans for Financial Reform, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, the National Consumer Law Center, U.S. PIRG, and the Woodstock Institute.

We also used this opportunity to once again urge the CFPB to conduct a broader proceeding to draft rules targeting the wide variety of unfair financial products (like money transfer services) that are forced on incarcerated people and their families.

There is no definite timeline for the current rulemaking, but the rules that were originally issued in 2016 are due to become effective in April 2018. Presumably the CFPB will make a decision on the current round of amendments sometime before the effective date.

by Alex Clark and Joshua Aiken, August 11, 2017

A Call of Duty video game, a cashier’s check for 34 cents, and 12 cans of peas. Recent analysis by C.J. Ciaramella at Reason and the Lucy Parsons Lab reveals these items as “lucrative” assets seized from poor Chicago neighborhoods.

Since 2012, the Cook County police have conducted 23,000 seizures of assets connected to civil and criminal cases — about 75% of which took place in Chicago. Asset forfeiture is often justified as a way for law enforcement to disrupt illegal drug trades: it allows officials to confiscate the property of people associated with a criminal offense even if the person who owns that property is never convicted of a crime. However, this data reveals police officers are confiscating petty property, mostly from poorer Black neighborhoods. Nearly half of the seizures were for amounts less than $1,000. Asset forfeiture is a tool targeted at major illegal drug trades; property worth a few hundred dollars should rarely account for seizures, let alone half of total assets. Furthermore, when you look at seizures valued under $100, they are geographically clustered in the South and West sides of Chicago with predominantly poor and Black communities.

This is the most recent example proving that at all levels, the War on Drugs functions as a war on communities of color. Nearly half a million people are behind bars for drug offenses and while white people and people of color use drugs as similar rates, people of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and locked away. In Chicago, racial disparities still exist even after possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in 2012.

While President Trump has threatened to “send in the feds” with regards to crime in Chicago, when it comes to drug enforcement, we already have. On top of the state asset forfeiture practices which “exacerbate hardship” for the poor and people of color, sting operations have been targeting similar groups for years, setting them up to fail. A report last year from Columbia Professor Jeffrey Fagan traced drug stings by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Since 2003, these stings set up fake drug stash houses and lured people into committing new crimes.

This is how the stings work: agents would identify individuals suspected of violent crimes and tell them that there was a stash of drugs and money at a local residence. Agents would then provide individuals with guns, cars, and other resources to steal the (nonexistent) drugs and (nonexistent) money and would tell targeted individuals to enlist their friends to assist in the burglary. When people arrived at the stash house, Bureau officials would arrest them and charge them with conspiracy to possess drugs with intent to distribute. Fagan’s study looked at individuals who would be eligible targets for recruitment according to the Bureau, and compared them against the people agents actually singled out. He found that: no statistical explanation except disparate racial treatment makes sense.

  • At least 91% of the time agents targeted Black and Latino people.
  • Three different tests for disparate racial treatment indicated that “race remains a statistically significant predictor of selection as a Stash House defendant.”
  • The probability that only one white person would be selected of the fifty-seven individuals from 2011-2013 is less than 0.1%.
  • Black and Latino people are so overrepresented, no statistical explanation except disparate racial treatment makes sense.

What is most alarming about drug stings and asset forfeiture is that they have been justified as ways to protect communities. However, a District Court judge described the ATF’s sting cases as the government “ensnaring chronically unemployed individuals from poverty-ridden areas.” Because agents have targeted Black and Latino people, communities have less reason to trust or assist law enforcement, and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. With 2016 being Chicago’s “deadliest year” and as the city’s racial and economic disparity remains stagnant, or in some cases increases, the need for reform is dire.

With the passage of House Bill 303, currently sitting on Governor Rauner’s desk, Illinois could make huge strides in civil asset forfeiture as the bill requires greater transparency and an increased burden of proof. Attorney General Sessions has made recent efforts to undermine state reforms in this area, but HB 303 passed with only one “no” vote in the Illinois State Senate. Hopefully, this signals Illinois will continue making unjust civil asset forfeiture a thing of the past.

And just as advocates are calling for greater oversight in Illinois, the ATF is being criticized for inadequate oversight and lacking direction. In a recent St. Louis sting, agents reported they were given no written direction on how to run their storefront operation, and the Chicago sting report stated that in some cases, informants said they chose targets after simply meeting them on the street. These approaches tear people away from their community by putting them behind bars and show little public safety gains. Instead of the government going out of its way to set people up for failure, policymakers could take alternative job and education approaches to give them a chance to succeed. Likewise, Chicago can still emphasize the resilience of the city, its communities, and probable good intentions of individual police officers in tandem with reform. There are other ways to keep people safe, investigate cases, and achieve justice. None of those ways involve taking 12 cans of peas.

by Elliot Oberholtzer, July 18, 2017

A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) sheds light on the treatment of disabled people in our society. This report, which compiles nationally representative data from 2011-2015 based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, shows that disabled people experience violent victimization at over twice the rate of people without disabilities. (On average 32 per 1,000 disabled people experience violent victimization annually, compared to 13 per 1,000 non-disabled people.)

Key findings include:

  • Disabled people experience significantly higher rates of rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault than non-disabled people.
  • Disabled youth ages 12-15 are victims of violent crime at over four times the rate of their non-disabled peers: 144 out of every 1,000 disabled youth experiences violent victimization each year.
  • 40% of the violence against disabled people was committed by someone they knew, and 10% of that was by a relative (not including romantic partners). Both of these numbers are significantly higher than for non-disabled people, who are more often victimized by a stranger.
  • 16% of violent crime victims with disabilities believed they were targeted due to their disability. (For more details see the BJS Hate Crime Victimization Report.)

Disabled people, particularly disabled youth, are often in the position of needing to rely on the people around them for support and to accomplish necessary tasks. As this data suggests, the position of power that non-disabled people have over the disabled people around them can lead to victimization and abuse.

The difference between disabled and non-disabled rates of violent victimization may be even more stark than this data suggests, because this data does not include institutionalized disabled people (including those in jails, prisons, residential care facilities, and assisted living facilities). Roughly 95% of people 65 and older in elder care institutions report at least one disability, and people in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability, both major populations that this study does not include.

The Human Rights Watch suggests that use of force abuses against disabled people in prisons is “widespread and may be increasing”. Ongoing studies of police violence also suggest that disabled people are a disproportionate percentage of those killed by police. Though this new study is an important addition, the picture of societal violence against disabled people is far from complete.

by Wendy Sawyer and Alex Clark, July 13, 2017

Jeff Sessions has famously parlayed his reputation as a zealous and harshly punitive prosecutor into a powerful political career; but among the elite, is his background really so unusual? And to what extent do political ambitions influence prosecutors’ decisions?

It’s now possible to examine the scale of prosecutors’ influence on American politics and justice, thanks to Fordham University historian Jed Shugerman. On Friday, Shugerman announced a new project exploring the emergence and impact of “prosecutor politicians” in recent U.S. history. He also made his extensive database publicly available, which will be invaluable for those of us looking at the role of prosecutors in shaping our criminal justice system.

As part of his research into politicians who began their careers as prosecutors, Shugerman and a team of research assistants looked into the prosecutorial backgrounds of Supreme Court justices, circuit judges, state attorneys general, governors, and senators from each state since the 1880s. The result is a groundbreaking database of American public officials and their legal and political background, impressive in its historical and geographical scope and detail. (Shugerman is quick to point out that the database is a work in progress, one that he hopes will benefit from crowdsourcing additional documentation and analysis.)

This research offers a new perspective – and critical new data – on the connections between prosecution and politics. In our initial look at the data, we focused on just public officials who have held office in the past ten years, and found examples of Shugerman’s “prosecutor politican” in 38 states. Of those in office at any point between 2007 and 2017, 38% of state attorneys general, 19% of governors, and 10% of U.S. senators had prosecutorial backgrounds.

50 state chart showing which states have had a senator, governor, and/or attorney general with prosecutorial experience in office between 2007 and 2017In at least 38 states, a senator, governor, and/or attorney general holding office in the past 10 years was once a prosecutor. This chart may understate the prevalence of these “prosecutor politicians,” since the source is a work in progress and has no data for some positions in five states as of July 7, 2017, and does not include changes in all offices after January 2017.

According to Shugerman, the “prosecutor politician” has emerged as a political force in recent history, having a detrimental impact on our criminal justice system. Shugerman argues that the prosecutor’s office has become a “stepping stone for higher office… with dramatic consequences in American criminal law and mass incarceration.” This hypothesis dovetails with the work of John Pfaff, who argues that prosecutorial decisions explain much of mass incarceration.

Shugerman’s inspiration for the project was his observation that in recent history, prosecutors with political aspirations appear to have prioritized public opinion and personal gain over justice. Their decisions have, in turn, made justice outcomes more punitive for millions of civilians, and noticeably more lax for police. Shugerman hypothesizes that ambitious politicians are drawn to the prosecutor’s office, where they prosecute more arrests and develop a reputation for being “tough on crime.” Yet while they prosecute many defendants too aggressively, such prosecutors also fail to adequately prosecute police officers who have killed Black men: “Suburban/rural prosecutors generally underperform, and perhaps even sabotage, their prosecutions of police in these cases because of their own political ambitions.”

John Pfaff’s work turned the attention of criminal justice reformers to prosecutors earlier this year; and now Shugerman has offered us a tool to further gauge the scope of the problem. If Shugerman’s theory is correct, and prosecutors are subverting justice out of political ambition and fear of public reproach, changing justice outcomes will require greater scrutiny of prosecutors and their decisions.

by Lucius Couloute, July 11, 2017

On April 6th our Senior Policy Analyst Bernadette Rabuy took part in a panel discussion on overcriminalization and indigent legal care at Georgia State University. Along with other leaders in the field, Bernadette addressed how overcriminalization not only affects incarcerated people and those under community supervision, but their families and communities as well. Check out the video above!

by Stephen Raher, July 6, 2017

Illustration depicting faces behind bars within tablet screens

In 2010, Apple made waves when it introduced the iPad. Over the last seven years, consumers have been busy trying out ever-more-powerful mobile devices; meanwhile, correctional facilities have been quietly experimenting with letting incarcerated people use limited-function electronic tablets inside prisons and jails. Correctional administrators are often resistant to change, but after a few tentative forays, some prison systems are beginning to adopt tablet programs on a larger scale.

A recent Denver Post article reports that the Colorado state prison system has awarded a contract to prison communications giant GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) for a tablet program that will eventually be deployed in all the state’s prisons.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) is somewhat of an early adopter of emerging communications technology. For several years it has offered electronic messaging, an email-like service that allows people in prison to send and receive messages using a proprietary, fee-based platform operated by a contractor. Colorado DOC’s electronic messaging program isn’t perfect, but its rollout was notable for giving people a new communication option. The tablet program, on the other hand, foreshadows a potential new paradigm in corrections, shifting numerous communications, educational, and recreational functions to a for-profit contractor; and, at the same time, making incarcerated people and their families pay for services, some of which are now commonly funded by the state.

What makes the Colorado/GTL contract especially frustrating is that it could have been an innovative step toward providing incarcerated people with useful technology. Experts who have studied government technology contracting warn that projects often fail because details are not sufficiently thought through. The Colorado DOC seems to have walked down this familiar path by focusing largely on its own financial interest without giving much thought to the user experience or the financial impact on incarcerated people and their families.

Continue reading →

by Lucius Couloute, June 28, 2017

Across the country jails are replacing in-person visits with video chats that can cost over $1 per minute; and as our national research on the 600+ facilities that have implemented video visitation illustrates, the collusion between local jails and telecom companies ignores the needs of incarcerated people and their loved ones in favor of profits.

In a new segment that aired on HBO last night, Vice News Tonight examined the growth of the exploitive video visitation industry in California; speaking with jail administrators, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and the families themselves in order to highlight the human toll of switching from the real thing to an artificial – and costly – substitute. Check out the piece above!

by Wendy Sawyer, June 28, 2017

BJS report coverA new Bureau of Justice report released yesterday reveals that 21% of sentenced people in state prisons and local jails are incarcerated for crimes committed to obtain drugs or money for drugs. Almost 40% of people locked up for property crimes and 14% of those incarcerated for violent crimes reported that they had committed their most serious offense for drug-related reasons. If these figures hold for the entire prison and jail population, that means over 473,000 people are behind bars for seeking drugs.

“Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009” details past drug use of incarcerated people surveyed in the National Inmate Surveys. Some of its other major findings include:

  • More than half of the state prison population and two-thirds of the sentenced jail population report drug dependence or abuse, compared to just 5% of the adult general population.
  • About 40% of the state prison population and sentenced jail population report using drugs at the time of the offense for which they were incarcerated.
  • Drug use varied by gender and race, as reported in past studies: Women were more likely than men, and whites more likely than Blacks, Hispanics, and “other” racial or ethnic groups to report drug dependence or abuse, to report drug use at the time of their offense, and to have ever regularly used cocaine or crack, methamphetamine, or heroin or other opiates.
  • Only about a quarter of those reporting drug dependence or abuse had received treatment since admission.

We already know that overcriminalization of drug use and possession contributes to mass incarceration, resulting in 1 million arrests each year. Responding to substance use as as an individual failure to be punished, rather than as a public health problem, is just as harmful. The widespread drug use and dependence among incarcerated people underscores the urgent need to redirect people and resources away from prisons and jails and toward more effective treatment. Treating underlying issues in a therapeutic setting is more cost effective and has better results when it comes to health and public safety. And as the new BJS report suggests, it’s also essential for reducing the incarcerated population.

by Emily Widra, June 26, 2017

New research expands the notions of collateral consequences beyond post-release barriers and discrimination. Two studies show that incarceration shortens life expectancy, at both the national and individual levels.

Nationally, there are so many people living behind bars that the average life expectancy for the total U.S. population has taken a hit. In 2014, the life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 78.8 years, while most comparable nations (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Austria) had life expectancies above 81 years.

A 2016 study by Professor Christopher Wildeman offers us an explanation for the U.S. falling behind on measures of population health, like life expectancy: mass incarceration. In comparison to other developed democracies, Wildeman finds that from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years – from 74.1 to 79.4 years – if not for mass incarceration. Without so many people behind bars, he argues, the life expectancy at birth would have increased 51% more than it actually did from 1981 to 2007. The sheer magnitude of how many people are locked up shortens our entire nation’s life expectancy.

This isn’t just problematic from a population health standpoint; the reduced life expectancy resulting from incarceration impacts individuals, families, and communities on a personal level. In her 2013 analysis of New York state parole data, Professor Evelyn Patterson identified a linear relationship between incarceration and life expectancy: for each year lived behind bars, a person can expect to lose two years off their life expectancy. In the parole cohort she studied, five years in prison increased the odds of death by 78% and reduced the expected life span at age 30 by 10 years. Time served has a direct correlation to years of life lost.

Although both studies suggest that incarceration affects life expectancy, neither study identifies the pathways by which this happens. Incarceration itself may be harmful enough to explain these effects, or it may be one of many adverse experiences putting vulnerable populations at risk. Either way, it’s important to address the appalling conditions of incarceration and the lack of opportunities and services for at-risk communities. Most importantly, we need to put less people behind bars. As Professor Patterson points out, unlike many collateral consequences of incarceration, “death cannot be reversed”.

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