The poverty rate is estimated at 20 percent. Researchers, professionals, and policy makers are looking for alternatives to high levels of incarceration and effective ways to reduce the chances of former prisoners returning to crime and prison. Some examples of these efforts are explored below. Temporary expansions of the safety net are not enough to help the millions of Americans who are still struggling with the economic and health consequences of the pandemic.
Congress must continue to invest in safety net programs and modernize them, ensuring that benefit levels are expanded and more accessible than before the crisis. You should also consider implementing automatic triggers that increase benefits during future economic crises, such as recessions, without the need for legislative intervention. Not only would this prevent people from falling into poverty while Congress discusses how much relief is needed, but having a system that automatically activates the expansion of benefits would also help to soften the blow of future recessions and stimulate the economy by giving money to people who desperately need it in a timely manner. Children in foster care are much more likely than their peers to be involved in the criminal justice system.
The complicated and overlapping nature of the criminal justice system and the child welfare system means that participation in one is likely to cause participation in the other. Currently, there are more than 44,000 legal sanctions that create barriers to housing for people with criminal records. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a committee of experts in criminal justice, social sciences and history to review research on incarceration. Courts across the country routinely jail people for not paying criminal justice debts regardless of financial circumstances that may make payment impossible.
Systemic poverty and the punishment of poverty through criminal justice bail bonding and child welfare systems are the result of poor political decisions. Bruce Western, Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and co-director of the Justice Laboratory at Columbia University, suggests that neither the police nor the courts nor the threat of punishment create public safety. The criminalization of the poor is compounded by the use by state and local governments of for-profit probation providers to collect unpaid fines and fees. Homeless people are also penalized by overly broad local laws on wandering, loitering and camping that lead to ticket sales, fines, and even arrest. More recently there have been significant changes in bail bond policies.
In addition, even having a minor criminal record or an arrest without conviction can prevent a person from getting a job, housing, or certain benefits, contributing to cycles of multigenerational poverty. The economic barriers imposed by past and present racism and systemic prejudices in housing, education, and the criminal justice system are well documented, and much of the impact is due to biased government policies. The increase in the number of incarcerations occurred when crime was actually historically low, including the lowest homicide rate since the early 1960s, so the increase in criminal activity is not a plausible explanation. Instead, systems punish parents with expulsion and put children at risk of future criminal activities.
Some researchers find links between high rates of incarceration among men of color and changes in policies that penalized the social problems faced by many people living in poverty (who are disproportionately people of color).