Poverty and debt
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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:
We gathered evidence from throughout the country to show how bail companies profit off of people in jails who can't afford bail, while avoiding accountability.
Our analysis of rare survey date shows how mass incarceration has been used to warehouse people with marginalized identities and those struggling with poverty, substance use disorders, and housing insecurity, among other serious problems.
Our followup report to Beyond the Count explores the medical histories of people in state prison, showing that most incarcerated people lacked health insurance or were on Medicaid in the leadup to their incarceration.
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.
- Prison disciplinary fines only further impoverish incarcerated people and families, by Leah Wang, February 7, 2024
We analyzed prison policies for all 50 states and the federal prison system, and found that 16 prison systems actually impose fines — in addition to other punishments — when someone violates a prison rule. We explain why disciplinary fines and fees are bad policy, putting excessive hardship on incarcerated people and their loved ones.
- Force multipliers: How the criminal legal and child welfare systems cooperate to punish families, by Emma Peyton Williams, January 8, 2024
Child protective service agencies position themselves as providers of welfare, but their relationship to the criminal legal system demonstrates their shared role in punishing families and exacerbating the conditions that lead to system involvement in the first place.
- Not an alternative: The myths, harms, and expansion of pretrial electronic monitoring, by Emmett Sanders, October 30, 2023
Cities and states are expanding their use of electronic ankle monitors to surveil people released from jail pretrial, often charging people steep daily fees to be supervised. We explain why this technology is, at best, a counterproductive tool for reducing jail populations.
- Seeking shelter from mass incarceration: Fighting criminalization with Housing First, by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, September 11, 2023
Providing unconditional housing with embedded services can reduce chronic homelessness, reduce incarceration, and improve quality of life – especially for people experiencing substance use disorder and mental illness.
- High stakes mistakes: How courts respond to “failure to appear”, by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, August 15, 2023
Research shows that while most people who miss court are not dangerous or evading justice, the way courts treat “failure to appear” may make our communities less safe.
- Unhoused and under arrest: How Atlanta polices poverty, by Luci Harrell and Brian Nam-Sonenstein, June 9, 2023
1 in 8 Atlanta city jail bookings involve a person experiencing homelessness.
- A sledgehammer instead of a scalpel: New rules proposed by the Biden Administration on money earned by or sent to people in federal prison are the wrong way to go, by Mike Wessler, March 13, 2023
Federal prison officials are proposing to garnish 75% of any deposits made into incarcerated people’s personal accounts if those people have court-related debts. It’s an extremely harmful policy that will keep incarcerated people from buying basic needs.
- Racial disparities in diversion: A research roundup, by Leah Wang, March 7, 2023
Research shows diversion "works," reducing harmful outcomes and increasing access to social services. However, studies also suggest diversion is routinely denied to people of color, sending them deeper into the criminal legal system. We review the research and remind practitioners that most diversion programs aren't designed around racial equity — but should be.
- How your local public housing authority can reduce barriers for people with criminal records, by Selena Munoz-Jones and Emily Widra, February 15, 2023
Millions of people with criminal records likely meet the income eligibility requirements for public housing assistance. But needlessly strict local policies lock them out of housing. We explain how your public housing authority may be overly exclusionary.
- New data on formerly incarcerated people's employment reveal labor market injustices, by Leah Wang and Wanda Bertram, February 8, 2022
Newly released data doubles down on what we've reported before: Formerly incarcerated people face huge obstacles to finding stable employment, leading to detrimental society-wide effects. Considering the current labor market, there may be plenty of jobs available, but they don't guarantee stability or economic mobility for this vulnerable population.
- For the poorest people in prison, it's a struggle to access even basic necessities, by Tiana Herring, November 18, 2021
Our survey of all 50 states and the BOP reveals that prisons make it hard for people to qualify as indigent--and even those who do qualify receive limited resources.
- Nine ways that states can provide better public defense, by Ginger Jackson-Gleich and Wanda Bertram, July 27, 2021
We suggest a few questions to ask to assess the strength of your state's public defense system.
- Returning from prison and jail is hard during normal times -- it's even more difficult during COVID-19, by Wanda Bertram, September 2, 2020
We review the evidence and call for state and local governments to provide more support for success upon release from prison or jail.
- How inflation makes your state's criminal justice system harsher today than it was yesterday, by Tiana Herring, June 10, 2020
The case for increasing the monetary level for felony theft.
- Since you asked: Should incarcerated people be receiving stimulus payments?, by Stephen Raher, May 18, 2020
Some correctional authorities - responding to bad guidance from the IRS - are intercepting and returning stimulus checks for incarcerated people. We explain why people in prison and jail are eligible for, and should be receiving, emergency aid.
- New data: Low incomes - but high fees - for people on probation, by Mack Finkel, April 9, 2019
People on probation are much more likely to be low-income than those who aren't, and steep monthly probation fees put them at risk of being jailed when they can't pay.
- New data highlights pre-incarceration disadvantages, by Lucius Couloute, March 22, 2018
New research illustrates that many formerly incarcerated people never received a fair first chance at economic mobility, never mind a second one.
- How does unaffordable money bail affect families?, by Wendy Sawyer, August 15, 2018
Using a national data set, we find that over half of the people held in jail pretrial because they can't afford bail are parents of minor children.
- Seizing Chicago: Drug stings and asset forfeiture target the poor, by Alex Clark and Joshua Aiken, August 11, 2017
Instead of protecting Chicago's communities, state asset forfeiture practices and drug stings set up by federal agents target low-income, Black, and Latino residents, setting them up to fail.
- Vera finds costs outweigh benefits in a "user-funded" criminal justice system, by Wendy Sawyer, January 10, 2017
Money bail. Pretrial detention. Fines and fees. Race. Poverty. Vera connects the dots in a new report on user-funded justice in New Orleans.
- The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth, by Meredith Booker, April 26, 2016
The wealth disparity between young men who experience prison and those who never do is staggering.
- Uncovering Mass Incarceration's Literacy Disparity, by Corey Michon, April 1, 2016
Literacy is a key metric for how our society sets some groups up to fail.
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.