Marla McDaniel, Margaret Simms, William Monson, and Karina Fortuny
This brief, part of a series on disconnected low-income men, summarizes selected data from published reports on incarceration in the United States. Low-income men are defined as those age 18 to 44 who live in families with incomes below twice the federal poverty level (FPL)1 and do not have four-year college degrees. Other briefs in the series examine low-income men’s demographic profiles, education, employment, and health.
We present data on imprisonment, one component of criminal justice system involvement, highlighting stark disparities by race, education, and place. The statistics on criminal offenses and incarceration cited reflect changes in federal and state crime policies over the past few decades, especially those related to drug offenses. These policies have led to mass incarceration—that is, the imprisonment of comparatively and historically high proportions of the population that cannot be accounted for by changes in crime rates. The US Department of Justice is reviewing laws and agency enforcement policies that may have had a disparate impact on African Americans and Hispanics, both in terms of incarceration and the collateral damage to their families and communities.2 Some of these impacts are summarized in this brief.
Young men of color are a particular focus because of their high rates of incarceration. While they are highly concentrated in poor neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, most available data are at the state and national level. Therefore, we mainly focus on state and national data that provide the most extensive documentation of the racial and ethnic aspects of incarceration. Since the criminal justice data generally do not include income of the prisoners’ families, we are unable to identify the proportion of incarcerated men who are low income. To the extent that prisoners are separated from mainstream society, however, the men in focus are disconnected and afterward face challenges reconnecting to the mainstream.
In addition to incarceration rates, we include state data on voting restrictions related to incarceration, a form of disconnection through civil disenfranchisement. We highlight examples of the economic impact of incarceration on individual communities and society as a whole. We consider both the costs of incarceration and the related family and community costs generated by that incarceration.