Prison and poverty an endless loop

Illustration by Rick Nease
Illustration by Rick Nease MCT

One popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

By that measure, Kentucky is off-the-walls wacko when it comes to locking people up.

That's not news, but it is reinforced by a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts about the impact of imprisonment on economic mobility.

We've known for a long time that the economics of locking people up are simply terrible. It costs a lot of money, there's little indication that locking more people up has made us safer and the people imprisoned have a hard time becoming productive taxpaying members of society upon release.

The Pew study takes this all a step further by looking at the impact on the economic prospects of the families of people imprisoned.

The findings aren't surprising, but they are both eye-opening and dreadful:

"Former inmates work fewer weeks each year, earn less money and have limited upward mobility. These costs are borne by offenders' families and communities, and they reverberate across generations," the report notes. The Pew report takes a national view so there are no Kentucky-specific data. But a 2008 Pew study in found that Kentucky had the nation's fastest-growing prison population.

Since 2000, the number of people locked up in Kentucky has grown 45 percent, compared with 13 percent for the rest of the nation. Total state spending on corrections reached $513 million last year, up from $117 million at the end of the 1980s.

We also know that Kentucky is among the poorest states in the nation, with 17 percent of our citizens living below the federal poverty line. Intergenerational poverty is also a Kentucky curse.

Poor children don't have the same access to many of the ingredients that lead to academic and economic success — consistent health care, good nutrition and educational enhancement.

So poverty begets poverty, and Kentucky languishes at or near the bottom of the socio-economic pool. Finally, we know that despite some remarkable examples to the contrary, poverty and crime are closely linked.

The insight from the Pew study is that our addiction to incarceration is adding to our tragic poverty, which in turn almost certainly increases crime.

A few rays of hope

One of the most troubling aspects of this downward spiral is that it's at least partly self-induced.

Although Kentucky's prison population growth outstrips the nation, our crime rate is below that of the rest of the country. As the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has pointed out, while our incarceration rate was soaring, violent and property crimes in Kentucky fell by 12 and 14 percent respectively.

We don't have more crime, we've simply designated more crimes punishable by imprisonment. And by doing so, we're relegating more children to a life in poverty. Remember what we said at the beginning about insanity?

There are a few rays of hope:

■ Gov. Steve Beshear and Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown acknowledge the problem and have taken measures to reduce the prison population without endangering public safety.

■ Earlier this year, the General Assembly recognized the problem by creating the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances to get at the heart of the problem, which is choosing imprisonment as the option of choice for non-violent drug-related crimes.

■ In addition, Beshear announced in August that the state is working with the Pew Center on the States to analyze our prison population growth and explore ways to reduce recidivism while holding offenders accountable and controlling spending on corrections.

We don't know exactly what will come of these efforts, but almost certainly the recommendations will involve some mix of reducing the types of offenses considered felonies, easing off on the prison time associated with others and investing in diversion and rehabilitation rather than imprisonment for non-violent offenders.

Beware fear factor

Some public figures will try to use fear — the emotion that got us into this irrational mess — to block reforms and further their careers.

We're all for spirited, even brutal, public debate. But when the fearmongers start warning that we won't be safe in our homes unless more and more people are locked up try to remember a few things:

■ Virtually all inmates are released. We don't lock the doors and throw away the keys.

■ One in 28 children in the United States now has a parent behind bars.

■ Nationally, more than two-thirds of men were employed before they entered prison, 44 percent of them lived with their children and more than half were the primary earners for the family.

■ Imprisonment, not just conviction, seems to be a key factor in depressing future earning opportunities. "Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent," the Pew report concludes.

Locking people up, it turns out, is often a short-term and ineffective solution that creates long-term intractable problems.

Some legislative session soon, we'll have a choice between investing in long-term solutions or maintaining our commitment to spending more money on prisoners than on students.

It's a test of our collective sanity.

Here's hoping we pass.

To find a copy of the study, "Collateral Costs; Incareration's effects on economic mobility," go to the Pew Charitable Trusts Web site at Pewtrusts.org.