An Analysis of Incarceration, Crime, Unemployment and Rural Spaces
By Rashawn Ray, PhDDownload Report
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A person is killed by police about every eight hours in the United States. Despite violent crime decreasing over the past 20 years, police killings have increased about 25% during this same time period (Gilbert and Ray, 2016). Importantly, research documents that the police killing rate is not associated with the violent crime rate in cities (Mapping Police Violence, 2015). In 2014 and 2015, a series of high-profile fatal encounters occurred between police and civilians. The deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Walter Scott, among others, became associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Since these fatal encounters involved mostly White officers and Black civilians, some argue these incidents highlight racial bias and discrimination within policing (Ray, 2015). Though racism is part of the story, I argue these fatal encounters underline the extreme lack of accountability within law enforcement (Ray, 2020). Policy solutions to close this racial gap in police killings and improve police-community relations have overwhelmingly centered on implementing body-worn cameras and participating in implicit bias training.
Though beneficial, I argue these policy solutions fall short of their goals because they do not address the lack of accountability that police departments have to the communities they serve. In this article, I recommend restructuring civilian payouts for police misconduct from taxpayer money to police department insurances to ensure law enforcement is held fiscally responsible for their actions. Civilian payouts for police misconduct cost local jurisdictions millions of dollars when taxpayer money could be spent in ways that help close the achievement gap and create jobs (Ray, 2021). Restructuring civilian payouts for police misconduct will reduce police killings and police use of force by increasing the accountability that police departments have to the communities they serve.
I begin by providing two notable cases of fatal police encounters. Next, I give an overview of what we know about racial disparities in policing. Then, I discuss my proposal for restricting the civilian payout process. Finally, I conclude by discussing why existing policies focused on implicit bias training and body-worn cameras fall short of decreasing police killings and use of force without increasing the accountability that police officers have to the communities they serve.
The current system for federal offenders turns a prior offense into a life sentence and prohibits them from gaining a foothold in society. Surveys have shown that only 12.5% of employers are willing to hire an ex-offender and the results bear that out—51% of ex-offenders are unable to find work within a year of their release. Unable to move on and build a new life, many lose hope and turn to substance abuse and eventually a return to crime and jail.
Americans have a criminal record
Any criminal record—even an arrest that never led to conviction —can be a lifelong barrier to opportunity.
Employers use background checks
Applicants with a record are nearly half as likely to get a callback or a job offer.
In lost GDP every year
Shutting people with records out of the labor market takes a huge toll on the U.S. economy.
- Automatically seals an individual’s federal criminal record for simple drug possession one year after successfully completing his or her sentence.
- Automatically seals arrest records and other related records for individuals who have been acquitted, exonerated or never had charges filed against them.
- Establishes new procedures to allow individuals to petition to seal records for nonviolent offenses that are not automatically sealed.
- Permits law enforcement to access sealed records for public safety reasons, such as investigatory purposes and background checks for firearms.
- Protects employers from liability for any claim arising out of the misconduct of an employee if the misconduct relates to a sealed criminal record.
Unemployment remains high among released prisoners after servicing their sentences for non-violent crimes. This unemployment contributes to recidivism, community unemployment, and fatherlessness, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage which contributes to future crime. Links between incarceration of non-violent offenses and future unemployment have been demonstrated in samples of former offenders, both at the State and Federal level. The current analysis examines this issue at the State and Congressional District unemployment levels. Proportion of individuals experiencing prison sentences, including for non-violent crimes, is correlated with unemployment at both the Congressional District and State level. This relationship persists regardless of a person’s race/ethnicity or rural/urban location, suggesting prison sentences for non-violent crimes predict unemployment for both urban Black and rural White communities. In conclusion, White-majority rural communities suffer long-term economic and social costs in the same manner as urban Black communities. The long-term impact of incarceration for non-violent crimes increases the chances of unemployment and child poverty.
Introduction and Literature Review
Recognizing this, the federal government, along with many States, Counties, and municipalities, has developed programs for individuals with criminal records and prior experiences with incarceration. These programs generally include work training, work release, vocational trainings, and Ban the Box initiatives. Evidence suggests these programs can be effective in reducing post-release criminal recidivism (Graham et al.,2014). This suggests societal investment in programs that aid offenders in obtaining employment are beneficial for offenders themselves and also society via reduced crime. Furthermore, evidence suggests society experiences down-stream impacts from reduced employment, such as fatherlessness or absentee fathers (Sum et al., 2011). Given present and non-abusive fathers reduce violent behavior among adolescent males in particular (Mackey & Mackey, 2003), investing in programs which increase the prevalence of involved fathers appears to be a clear societal good.
Specifically, the current study sought to investigate several research questions:
- Does this effect also include relationships with child poverty rates?
- Do these effects persist when ethnicity is controlled?
- Do White-majority rural communities experience similar relationships as do better-researched Black-majority urban environments?
- Does prison incarceration predict unemployment at the level of Congressional Districts and States?
The second dataset used sentencing and crime data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) (United States Sentencing Commission, 2022). This dataset provides state level data on Federal crimes, broken down by violent and non-violent crime types. Demographic information is provided by U.S. Census data and unemployment data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022).
We used U.S. Department of Agriculture (2022) guidelines to delineate whichCongressional Districts were considered rural or urban. Looking at Districts which are rural, and majority (60+%) White (n = 8), we compared these to urban, majority Black (25%) Districts (n = 3). Congressional Districts in the database were specifically selected if they met these criteria, resulting in 8 White-majority rural Congressional Districts and 3 Black-over represented urban Congressional Districts. Most districts are more blended in terms of race and rurality and, as such, these districts represent the more extreme examples. Although their numbers are few, there placement at opposite extremes regarding race and rurality suggest a pattern, given their similarities, likely to hold for Congressional Districts that mix communities that are minority-majority and White-majority and are blended in terms of rural/urban divides. As we can see below, prison population and poverty rates were similar across these Congressional Districts, though unemployment was higher in Black majority districts.
Majority Congressional Districts
We also examined the correlation between prison population and employment in specific Congressional Districts with more than five-counties in the dataset. This number allowed for more robust correlations. Focusing on districts with multiple counties in the dataset allows for more robust correlation coefficients that are less likely due simply to chance. Results for these Congressional Districts with correlations above .10 are as follows.
The current results suggest long-term imprisonment - but not short-term jails - are associated with both unemployment and child poverty. The latter finding is important because it suggests the potential consequences of this relationship may extend beyond merely those for the former offenders. Removal of primary caregivers from the family has straightforward economic impacts on youth left behind. Given a high proportion of former inmates are male, economic deprivation contributes to fatherlessness. Fatherlessness being a consistent predictor of negative outcomes, an issue true for both Black and White families (Rambert, 2021). As such, policies which can return employed fathers to families is in the national interest.
Our data suggest relationships between imprisonment for non-violent crimes and unemployment and child poverty hold regardless of the racial composition of the communities under study. To put it directly, this is not a Black issue or a White issue, nor an urban issue or a rural issue. Rather the relationship between imprisonment and unemployment is consistent across most communities. Thus, policies which address this relationship - breaking this cycle - have a good chance of reducing recidivism, increasing employment, and improving issues related to fatherlessness. As such, the long-term benefits from such programs may be intergenerational and cross-cultural in nature.
As criminal histories for non-violent offenders which are required to be reported to employers create an obvious roadblock for employment, reconsideration of these policies, and laws provide a broad societal good. In this sense the Clean Slate Act provides a positive avenue for increasing non-violent offenders’ participation in employment, in their families, and decreasing their involvement with the criminal justice system which would provide resource relief for taxed States, Congressional Districts, and municipalities. Our results consistently pointed to associations between incarceration, including at the federal level, unemployment and poverty, for both rural White, urban Black and all communities in between. Thus, reducing roadblocks to employment for former non-violent offenders, potentially benefits all communities.
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Bivariate Correlations between Study Variables
Mean Rates of Prison Population, Unemployment and Poverty for White and Black Majority Congressional Districts
Regression Results for Unemployment and ChildPoverty Outcomes
Correlation between Prison Population and Employment in Congressional Districts with more than five-Counties
Correlation between Prison Population Per-Capita and Unemployment
About the Authors
is the founding director of the Center for Justice Research and Professor of Justice Administrationat Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities.
Chris Ferguson, PhD
is an affiliated researcher with the Center for Justice Research Texas Southern University. His researchexamines clinical offender and juvenile justice populations as well as evaluations for child protective services.
Sven Smith, J.D., PhD
is an affiliated researcher with the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. Svenserved as the lead researcher/supervisor on The American Jury Project.
Stephen G. Van Geem, PhD
is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Utah State University. Stephen is the Undergraduate Program Director.