Felons Are Poor Even Before Prison, New Study Finds

It's a truism among criminal justice scholars that crime doesn't pay — or, as the Denver Post used to sneer in big black type back in the heyday of Bonfils and Tammen, "Crime Never Pays." Offenders who wind up with a prison record are less likely to find gainful employment and far more likely to end up back in the joint or on public assistance for years to come. 

But a new study by the Prison Policy Initiative takes that old saw a step further. Using little-analyzed data on the incomes of prisoners prior to their incarceration, the report provides hard numbers to confirm what criminologists have often asserted — that the vast majority of America's incarcerated come from the most impoverished strata of the country.

"The findings are as predictable as they are disturbing," write the report's authors, Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf. "The American prison system is bursting at the seams with people who have been shut out of the economy and who had neither a quality education nor access to good jobs."

Using Bureau of Justice Statistics data, Rabuy and Kopf found that the prison population had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41 percent less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. The gap isn't just a matter of the disproportionate representation of people of color in prison, either. As these charts detail, the income difference between the jailed and the free is dramatic even when comparisons are made by race: 

The study doesn't draw any simplistic conclusions about poverty's role in criminal behavior; after all, there are plenty of law-abiding people at the lower end of the income scale. But by documenting that the people inside America's prisons and jails are busted not only legally but financially, the analysis does raise questions about whether it's realistic to expect to squeeze more out of these turnips and their families — such as the price-gouging video visitation industry (the subject of another PPI report) has tried to do. 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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