Low-Income Men at the Margins Caught at the Intersection of Race, Place, and Poverty. Criminal Justice System


For many low-income men, encounters with the criminal justice system are a common feature of neighborhood life. Men may get stopped or questioned by the police, whether they have been engaged in criminal activity or are just “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Police engagement is much higher in communities where men of color live—communities often troubled by violence and crime (Fagan and Davies 2000; Goffman 2009; Holmes 2000).

Heavy police presence has tangible effects on men, whose daily lives are disrupted by threat of arrest (Goffman 2009). The biggest negative effect by far comes from incarceration and the barriers it raises for employment and reintegration into society. For low-income men of color, a spell in jail or prison is more common than it was three decades ago. Among African -American and Hispanic men age 20–34, 11.4 and 3.7 percent, respectively, were behind bars in 2008. Among the African American men in this age group without high school degrees or GEDs, 37.1 percent, or 1 in 3, were incarcerated in 2008 (Pew Charitable Trusts 2010). This figure has risen drastically since 1980, when 10.6 percent of African American men without high school degrees were incarcerated. The percentage of white males without high school educations behind bars stood at 12 percent in 2008, up from 2.4 percent in 1980. According to a 2004 report by Pettit and Western, African American men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school had an approximately 60 percent chance of serving time in prison by 1999. White men born in the same years and with the same educational attainment had only a 14 percent chance.

Hispanic immigrants face an additional threat: that of immigration-related profiling and arrest, which can affect them or their family members, even when they are legal immigrants or born in the United States (Chaudry et al. 2010). Since September 11, 2001, the number of immigrants deported as a result of work-site raids or state and local authorities checking the immigrant status of arrestees (as directed by federal authorities) has grown tremendously (Capps et al. 2011; Kirk et al. 2012). Even for citizens and legal residents, detentions and deportations of relatives that result in family separation and economic hardship and instability also have a far-reaching effect in the communities where immigrants live. Families live in fear of social profiling and discrimination, so they may be less willing to report crimes and cooperate with police in fighting crimes (Chaudry et al. 2010; Kirk et al. 2012).


Caught in the Web of the Criminal Justice System

Involvement with the criminal justice system can have lasting effects in all areas of men’s lives. Constant policing and avoidance of jail may undermine already-strained attachments to family, employment, and community (Goffman 2009; Richardson forthcoming). Some 2.7 million children younger than 18, or 1 in every 28 children, have a parent behind bars in the United States. Among African American children, 1 in 9 has an incarcerated parent (Pew Charitable Trusts 2010). A study by Rucker Johnson (2009), highlighted in Pew Charitable Trust’s report on incarceration and economic mobility, finds that a parent’s imprisonment has significant economic and social effects on the family. The average family’s income falls 22 percent the first year a father is in prison. In addition, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of children with a father who has served time in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared with only 4 percent of children without incarcerated fathers (R. Johnson 2009).

Once low-income men have been incarcerated, they have a difficult time reentering society, often leaving the system at a greater disadvantage than when they entered. Returning men face the immediate challenge of finding a place to live, and access to affordable housing is limited by scarcity, legal barriers and regulations, prejudice, and strict requirements for federally subsidized housing. And, those without families and lacking stable housing are more likely to return to prison (Baer et al. 2006; Metraux and Culhane 2004). Most important, men’s job prospects and opportunities for earnings growth and advancement are even more limited than before. This is especially true for African American men (Lyons and Pettit 2011; Pettit and Lyons 2007). Employers in one study were one-half to one-third as likely to consider ex-offenders for employment than those without criminal histories, and job prospects generally were far worse for men of color (Pager 2003).

The criminal justice system’s grip on low-income men, especially men of color, has serious implications for their economic, educational, familial, and health outcomes. Men with low-level arrest warrants or who are out on bail are routinely searched, arrested, and questioned by police in their neighborhoods. Constant police presence has ramifications that do not show up in most incarceration statistics. Many men, out of fear of arrest or harassment, tend to act unpredictably and avoid social institutions and relations they may have relied on. For example, an individual might avoid hospitals or similar medical facilities for fear that the staff would observe an outstanding warrant or probation violation and alert authorities. Avoidance of these key institutions can have deleterious outcomes and drive men to become even more disconnected from the rest of society. Police presence can also undermine family relationships because men may grow suspicious of those close to them who could use their wanted status for coercion (Goffman 2009).

The extent of contact with the criminal justice system among low-income men of color has reached an all-time high and is nearly unparalleled in other developed nations (Pew Charitable Trusts 2010). The crisis affects all aspects of life, spilling into men’s family, employment, health, and even education. How does constant police presence or threat of arrest influences men’s behaviors? And how does the perpetual threat of violence and victimization in high-crime neighborhoods affect men, their families, and their communities? How can policymakers, service providers, and the criminal justice system foster successful reentry into society after incarceration and what are the effective ways to reform the prison system? Creative, effective solutions for combatting the crisis in criminal justice are needed.

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