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:



Report thumbnail for Shadow Budgets report Shadow Budgets: How mass incarceration steals from the poor to give to the prison

Revenues from communication fees, commissary purchases, disciplinary fines, and more flow into “Inmate Welfare Funds” meant to benefit incarcerated populations. However, our analysis reveals that they are used more like slush funds that, in many cases, make society’s most vulnerable people pay for prison operations, staff salaries, benefits, and more.

bail report cover All profit, no risk: how the bail industry exploits the legal system

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.

report thumbnailBeyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations

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.

report thumbnailChronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons

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.

report thumbnailArrest, Release, Repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems

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.

report thumbnailPrisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned

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.

report thumbnailDetaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time

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.


issue thumbnailRace and gender

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.

issue thumbnailCollateral consequences

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.

issue thumbnailExploitation

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.

Research Library

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.

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