Inequality, criminal justice reform are linked
Incarceration approach is hollowing out the middle class
FOR ALL THE TALK about inequality these days, it’s rare to see policy proposals that could actually make a difference. Politicians of all persuasions rail against the disappearing middle class, and then do very little to find common ground on viable solutions to the problem. The criminal justice reform legislation introduced in the Senate last week is an encouraging exception. While it may seem like a loose connection, make no mistake, our criminal justice system is contributing to the hollowing out of the middle class on three levels.
It begins with individuals directly caught up in the justice system. The tough-on-crime laws Massachusetts adopted in the late-1980s and early-1990s tripled the number of people interacting with the corrections system and made it difficult for them to escape. Nearly all of these people come from the bottom of the income distribution. Their involvement with the corrections system greatly diminishes their odds of climbing the economic ladder, and the negative effects trickle down, holding back their children.
The next level is those living in high-poverty neighborhoods, where formerly incarcerated individuals are concentrated. It may sound counterintuitive, but studies clearly show that high incarceration rates have actually increased crime, destabilized schools, and channeled a sense of hopelessness in urban neighborhoods in Boston and elsewhere. So thousands of residents who aren’t personally connected to the criminal justice system nonetheless have their prospects for achieving the American Dream reduced.
Finally, the fiscal cost of ineffective criminal justice policies weigh down the middle class more broadly. Before Massachusetts adopted these counterproductive laws, the state spent 25 percent more on higher education than corrections. Now correctional facilities take precedence in the state budget, and those enrolling in public colleges are left struggling with tuition, fees, and mounting personal debt.
Over the past several years, these legislators held dozens of hearings, digested research, participated in community forums (often far from their districts), and met with constituents and interest groups on all sides. Then they crafted a flurry of bills. Senate Judiciary Chair Will Brownsberger used the acumen he’s developed from years of experience as both a problem-solving legislator, prosecutor, and defense attorney to meld this activity into a comprehensive piece of legislation.New research on economic mobility in America underscores the urgency to act on criminal justice reform. All else being equal, poor children who grow up in Boston will earn less than the typical low-income child in the United States. Shamefully, the same is true for poor children raised in Lawrence, New Bedford, and Springfield. This reality runs counter to the progressive values Massachusetts holds dear. State lawmakers cannot solve all of the conditions that hamper economic mobility, but they can fix those of our own making. The time has come to stand by legislators fighting hard on Beacon Hill for comprehensive criminal justice reform.
Greg Torres is the president of MassINC and the publisher of CommonWealth magazine.