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New PEW Report: Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be found in a cell than in the workplace.

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October 06, 2010 06:30 pm


CollateralCostsReport.blogIn August, citing a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the on-time high school graduation rate for black males in 2008 was an abysmal 47 percent. Quoting Herbert:

The astronomical jobless rates for black men in inner-city neighborhoods are both mind-boggling and heartbreaking. There are many areas where virtually no one has a legitimate job.

On the heels of the report from the Schott Foundation comes an even more devastating finding contained in a new report from the PEW Charitable Trusts:

Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be found in a cell than in the workplace.

According to the report, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, 1 in 3 black men aged 20 to 34 who are behind bars lacks a high school diploma or GED. Among Hispanic males in the same age group, 1 in 14 lacks a high school diploma or GED; for white men, the rate is 1 out of 8. Quoting the report:

Black men, in particular, face enormously dim prospects when they fail to complete high school. More than one-third (37 percent) of black male dropouts between the ages of 20 and 34 are currently behind bars-three times the rate for whites in the same category. This exceeds the share of young black male dropouts who have a job (26 percent). Thus, as adults in their twenties and early thirties, when they should be launching careers, black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be found in a cell than in the workplace.

Overall, the report finds that there are currently 2.3 million Americans behind bars-that’s 1 out of every 100 adults. In 1980, there were only 500,000 Americans in prison.

Thanks to that explosive growth, the United States’ incarcerated population and represents the highest rate of incarceration in the world. But that’s only half of the bad news. The United States houses more inmates than the top thirty-five European countries combined, as shown in this image from the report.

In addition to the huge impact that incarcerating so many people has on state budgets-the report finds that state correctional costs now top $50 billion a year, or $1 of every $15 from states’ general fund dollars-there are also lasting barriers to economic progress for formerly incarcerated people, their families and their children. Again quoting the report:

The price of prisons in state and federal budgets represents just a fraction of the overall cost of incarcerating such a large segment of our society. The collateral consequences are tremendous and far-reaching, and as this report illuminates with fresh data and analysis, they include substantial and lifelong damage to the ability of former inmates, their families and their children to earn a living wage, move up the income ladder and pursue the American Dream.

The report also notes that former inmates work fewer weeks each year, earn less money, and have limited upward mobility. But the costs don’t stop with the individual-they are also borne by offenders’ families and communities, and they reverberate across generations. For example, the report finds that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared with 4 percent). Additionally, family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was the year before a father is incarcerated. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration.

In an attempt to reduce the productivity losses associated with serving time in jail or prison, the report offers the following recommendations:

  • Proactively reconnect former inmates to the labor market through education and training, job search and placement support and follow-up services to help former inmates stay employed.
  • Enhance former inmates’ economic condition and make work pay by capping the percent of an offenders’ income subject to deductions for unpaid debts (such as court-ordered fines and fees), and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to include non-custodial, low-income parents.
  • Screen and sort people convicted of crimes by the risks they pose to society, diverting lower-risk offenders into high-quality, community-based mandatory supervision programs.
  • Use earned-time credits, a proven model that offers selected inmates a shortened prison stay if they complete educational, vocational or rehabilitation programs that boost their chances of successful reentry into the community and the labor market.
  • Provide funding incentives to corrections agencies and programs that succeed in reducing crime and increasing employment.
  • Use swift and certain sanctions other than prison, such as short but immediate weekend jail stays, to punish probation and parole violations, holding offenders accountable while allowing them to keep their jobs.

In the end, however, the most effective way to avoid the consequences of prison is to avoid prison itself, something that the report points out.

One way to help individuals avoid crime is to ensure that they get the education they need to land good-paying jobs that can support a family. As the Alliance for Excellent Education points out in its 2006 policy brief, Saving Futures, Saving Dollars, people with more education commit less crime.

Why? Several theories abound. For one, people who have high school diplomas or better earn higher wages through legitimate work, thus reducing the perceived need to commit a crime and/or raising the potential cost of crime to that person (i.e., getting caught and being incarcerated) to unacceptable levels. Additionally, the stigma of a criminal conviction may be greater for professional workers, who tend to have higher levels of education, than for those in lower-paying, lower-skilled jobs. Whatever the underlying causes, education clearly has a strong impact on crime prevention and the personal safety of Americans.

The Alliance brief is careful to point out that dropping out of school does not automatically result in a life of crime. Indeed, the vast majority of individuals who leave high school without diplomas are, and remain, law-abiding citizens.

In the end, however, you can’t argue with the statistics:

Research indicates that about 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates, almost 59 percent of federal inmates, and 69 percent of jail inmates did not complete high school.


One Comment

  1. photo
    Isaiah Graham
    Posted 6 years ago

    This article is quite interesting. But its quite sad how many black people are in prison.

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