Far from offering people a "second chance," our criminal justice system frequently punishes those who never had a first chance: people in poverty. By focusing law enforcement on low-level offenses and subjecting criminal defendants to money bail and other fees, our country effectively punishes people for being poor.
Poverty is not only a predictor of involvement with the justice system: Too often, it is also the outcome. Criminal punishment subjects people to countless fines, fees, and other costs (often enriching private companies in the process). A criminal record, meanwhile, does lasting collateral damage.
Below is our key research on how the criminal justice system punishes poverty:
At least 4.9 million people go to county and city jails each year, our national analysis shows. We find that people who go to jail - particularly those who go more than once a year - are disproportionately likely to have incomes under $10,000.
We show that even before their incarceration, people in prison are much poorer than Americans of similar ages. We also break this data down by gender, revealing for the first time the pre-incarceration incomes of women behind bars.
We explain how the pretrial detention and bail process works. We also show why paying money bail is so difficult: For a typical defendant, money bail represents about eight months' pay, and even more for women and people of color.
The justice system's unequal treatment of poor people hits people of color and women the hardest. Our research provides race and gender breakdowns in the criminal justice system.
Criminal punishment does lasting damage to someone's ability to find education, housing, or a job — often trapping them in poverty. Tens of millions of Americans are currently dealing with these "collateral consequences" of punishment.
Incarcerated people and their families are a captive market, one that private companies — in collusion with jail administrators — are all too eager to exploit. We are bringing these practices to light and fighting back.
Didn't find what you were looking for? We also curate a database of virtually all the empirical criminal justice research available online. See the sections of our Research Library on poverty and wealth and the economics of incarceration.