Melissa Harris-Perry, 5/12/13, 11:33 AM ET

How reforming our criminal justice system could change everything

Employment discrimination is only one of the barriers ex-offenders face when they are released from prison. Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed, Madeline Neighly...

How prison keeps many Americans locked into poverty

Updated
By Rev. Vivian Nixon

President Obama mentioned the word “poverty” four times in his State of the Union address this February—more times than he had mentioned the worldwide issue in all of his other State of the Union addresses combined. In his speech, Obama offered five solutions that if implemented, would help move millions of families currently living in poverty in the United States toward economic stability. Each of these solutions has implications that may be invisible to policy and opinion makers, but they highlight the intersection of criminal justice and rising rates of poverty—which is among the collateral consequences of criminal conviction, particularly among people of color.

The president first suggested that one solution to poverty is to create good jobs. People need jobs that pay decent wages, offer long-term security and health benefits, and provide a path to upward mobility. Who could be against that?

However, it becomes more complex when we consider the Pew Center’s 2008 finding that nearly one in 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars and the National Employment Law Project’s estimation that nearly 65 million U.S. residents have a criminal record on file. This leaves them vulnerable to employment discrimination based solely on a conviction, no matter how long ago it occurred. What makes a lot more sense is a national ban on previous convictions inquiries until after an applicant has been deemed otherwise qualified.

Additionally, the president proposed a raise in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, which is long overdue. But a higher minimum wage means nothing if jobs are not available to the people who need them most. One factor that has been a driver of mass criminalization and mass incarceration is the loss of manufacturing and low-skill jobs. Epidemic joblessness, combined with the emergence of a thriving drug trade—feeding addiction and careers in an underground economy—have made residents in inner cities and poor rural areas vulnerable to the criminal justice system.

Not only are millions left without the skills or work experience that are relevant to the current labor market, but they are saddled with the additional burden of criminal conviction. For them, an increase in the minimum wage is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a movement to create opportunity vulnerable individuals who desire to move their lives in a positive direction.

The president also reminded us that we need to invest in the type of educational system that better prepares people to succeed in today’s highly technical labor market, which has significant implications for individuals with criminal history records for at least two reasons.

To start, the drastic reduction in post-secondary educational opportunities inside of correctional facilities which resulted from the 1994 removal of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students makes it nearly impossible for people to earn meaningful credentials while incarcerated. This, despite the fact that numerous studies have proven that education is the most reliable predictor of reduced criminal recidivism. Furthermore, according to a study by the Center for Community Alternatives, nearly 60% of colleges and universities nationwide now screen students for criminal records at the onset of the college application process. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that past arrests, even those which didn’t result in a conviction, are also part of the consideration process—one led by people who may not know the implication of what they’re asking.

Any serious effort to reduce poverty by increasing relevant workforce training and academic education must also include a serious effort to restore educational opportunities to students in prison and to assure that individuals with criminal histories records have fair access to college in the community.

Early childhood education is another investment of which the president spoke of—for the millions of children with incarcerated parents, poverty is a much more likely destination. Destabilized living situations, and suffer various emotional problems that make it difficult for them to access quality early childhood education and related services. Furthermore, children of incarcerated parents are at risk of increased homelessness and foster care placement, among other things. Programs that provide specialized services connecting these children to quality early childhood education will be necessary in order for any strategy to benefit these vulnerable children.

President Obama offered a fifth and final proposal to address poverty in America: supporting and strengthening families. Secure and healthy family environments are difficult for individuals with criminal record histories to maintain. Their families, and the communities in which they live repeatedly experience the negative repercussions (including loss of income) of people cycling in and out of prison. This impact is not short-term, or even temporary.

A 2009 research study concluded that growing incarceration has significantly increased poverty, regardless of how you measure it—and that the official poverty rate would have fallen considerably during the period had it not been for mass incarceration. The only way to reverse this trend and to prevent future damage is to be vigilant about considering the needs of those who have been marked by criminalization and incarceration as we seek ways to address poverty in America.

The second half of Sunday’s discussion about poverty and criminal justice can be found below.

How prison keeps many Americans locked into poverty

Updated