What Now: The crime economy

Commentator Reihan Salam says by doing a better job of deterring crime, we could do more for our economic future than almost any other reform.

Kai Ryssdal: We've been asking a pretty basic question the past couple of days trying to get a sense of the way the new year's going to shake out. What now, we want to know? What are the headlines going to be this year? The issues and events people are going to discuss, and that the media's going to cover? What should matter?

Our series finishes today with commentator Reihan Salam.

Reihan Salam: There was a time when the causes that inspired middle-class young people went beyond, well, looking out for the interests of middle-class young people. During the Civil Rights era, a small handful of privileged white kids joined forces with African-American freedom fighters. Large numbers of women who were never at risk of being drafted fought hard against the war in Vietnam. But the cause that most inspires today's student activists, in contrast, is a desire for lower tuition bills.

There is much to be said for lower tuition bills. But I have a better cause in mind for today's young idealists -- doing everything we can for the more than 2 million Americans who are behind bars, and their families.

Think about the roughly 600,000 ex-offenders who leave prison every year. They tend to live in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods, where job opportunities are scarce. And in a slack labor market, employers are reluctant to hire them. Just listen to these findings from a Pew Economic Mobility Project report. Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent and yearly earnings by 40 percent. Lower earnings mean lower savings. Lower savings mean that ex-offenders rarely have the assets they need to climb the economic ladder.

Almost three million American kids have a currently incarcerated parent, and many more have an ex-offender parent. These children have to compete with the children of families that have never been touched by the prison system. It's not surprising that they tend to struggle, and that many of the sons and brothers of ex-offenders wind up in prison themselves.

People often ask why America's economy isn't growing any faster. The real economic miracle is that we're as rich as we are given the enormous destruction of human potential caused by mass incarceration.

The late Harvard Law professor William Stuntz argued that we'd be much better off if we shifted resources from prisons to police forces. By doing a better job of deterring crime, we could limit the collateral damage from excessive punishment. That one small change could do more for our economic future than almost any other reform.

Ryssdal: Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21, that's an economics think-tank. Take a second to send us your thoughts -- write to us.

About the author

Reihan Salam is a non-fiction writer and policy adviser.
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This commentary is naïve and entirely too rational and simplistic. It seems to assume that we all would seek out a happy, prosperous life if given a chance. That is far from the truth. There are thousands and thousands of reasons people commit crimes. We (meaning mainstream, law-abiding citizens) can understand crimes of passion, but we have a hard time understanding the irrational crime, and even hard time dealing with it.

The situation is far too complex to resolve with simple social formulas. Extra money to education, child development, etc. etc. doesn't do anything if the people who need it most won't use it. Even if they did, what if they don't share our desire for civil and humble discourse? It should be no surprise many of the worst offenders think lowly of themselves and the idea of our orderly society just sickens them.

But this article wasn't about crime so much as it is about prisons. To that, the author makes a valid point - there's lots of wasted potential locked up in jail. There's even more wasted potential in the children of the incarcerated. And we SHOULD care. But the fact remains, crime is almost a sub-culture in America (we base tv shows, movies, video games, music, even clothing on criminal behavior) and as such it's not something that can be fixed in a simple manner.

Misplaced "tough on crime" measures have swelled the ranks of people with criminal records to the point where the National Employment Law Project estimates that at least 20% of our population now has a criminal record, the vast majority of whom have either never served time or only served very short sentences. I am a professional investor and completely agree that by denying employment to qualified people with past criminal records, our economy is less efficient because a significant segment of society is left idle and unemployed as a result of old or irrelevant offenses and their skills for a position. Corporate bans on hiring people with records also
disproportionately affect communities of color given the disparate impact of the criminal justice system. The successful transition of offenders from incarceration to the community, including the opportunity for stable employment, is a vital deterrent to criminal conduct and recidivism. It is especially necessary in these trying economic times that ex-offenders become financially independent in order to be able to support themselves and avoid becoming permanent burdens on the government's limited resources. My firm, Zevin Asset Management, has been urging companies to instigate a more thoughtful review of their hiring processes and remove barriers to employment for qualified applicants who do not pose a threat to employees, clients, or the general public.

Could not agree with you more. I have a drug possession felony from 2005 that I tried to take to trial with a public defender who seemed more interested in cutting a plea bargain than actually going to trial. I basically sat in jail until I would plead guilty to get out even though I was actually innocent...served like 90 days for a two-week sentence. Now, here I am at 35 with a Bachelors Degree from 2004 and an Honorable discharge from the Marines in 1999 and I'm in perfect physical and mental health. I live off unemployment after working a temp job for over a year and get food stamps...I don't even want to fill out a job application or answer the criminal record question for fear that they'll just see "felony" and think it's the end of the world. Yet, I see people working everywhere that don't have criminal records but engage in criminal conduct all the time.

1) More law enforcement is not the answer.
2) Better funded social welfare programs are the answer.
3) Better funded education programs are the answer.
4) Dramatically narrowing the gap between wealthy and poor is the answer.
5) People turn to illegal drugs or crime because they have little hope or little to lose. Give them hope by helping them to live a comfortable life, and most will strive to maintain a pleasant status quo. When the status quo is unbearable, what would we expect? Part of the frustration with street crime as commenter Grumpy Charlotte described, is the random and unfair nature of being targeted. I am mindful of it too, and I'm sympathetic to her situation. But how fair is it for anyone to be poor?
6) I am frustrated by the - often very loudly voiced - perception by some (often elected officials) that poor people are lazy, don't deserve social welfare programs, or inherently get what they deserve. This is just wrong and simple-minded. It ignores volumes of circumstantial factors that most people with wealth and without legal difficulties have never faced.

Our documentary film, The Cooler Bandits, http://coolerbandits.com , addresses this issue head on as told through the lives of 4 men who have spent their entire adult lives incarcerated for crimes committed in 1991 when they were teens. 20 years later released with $80 in gate pay to the same neighborhood they came from into the worst economy in a century as convicted felons. As felons, they are not eligible to receive public housing, 300 jobs (collateral sanctions) they are not allowed to have in the state of Ohio, can't serve on a jury, required to answer yes on job and housing applications if they have committed a crime. Have they served their time? Have they paid their debt to society or are they branded for life? Felon, is the new "N" word.

A very naive commentary. Yes, we should help the families, esp. children, of those in prison. But, "the enormous destruction of human potential" is not "caused by mass incarceration". It's caused by the CRIME!

The assumption that your trying to have us believe, that having more police on the streets reduces the number of people in prison, is completely backwards! having more police on the streets just increases the number of people arresting other people, especially when those police's job success is rated almost solely on how many people they arrest.. that, in turn, puts MORE people in the criminal justice system and even MORE people on parole. Then, it is extremely easy to get placed back in prison for minor parole violations causing even MORE prison crowding.
I'm not sure what the is, but it is DEFINETLY not this.

When was the last time you lived in the 'hood, kiddo? Child of the 60s that I am, I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, on 12/22/11, a purse snatcher stole my bag as I was gimping in the rain to the Post Office to mail my bills. He got my cash, my ID, and my stamped bills with the personal checks inside. Now I will spend the next seven years AT LEAST fighting identity theft. Then on New Year's Eve, I was working from home when I heard a sharp crack hit the side of the house. When the sun came up, I searched to no avail for the bullet hole on the outside wall of my rental unit. Well, a few days later I found it -- imbedded on the INSIDE of the living room wall after it had pierced the lower right corner of the living room window. I have been told by experienced police officers that you have to be circumspect with the kids around here; the ones from bad homes become dedicated predators by the time they reach 10 or 11 years old. And unlike Bush et al, the gangs don't leave any child behind when it comes to their recruiting efforts around here. By the way, I am also sick and tired of hearing about "Baby Daddy" -- that phantom father who shows up every once in a lifetime for his children to drop off one whole package of disposable diapers. Of course, to get this neighborhood in grip would require unrelenting dedication, no cop-outs-allowed education, and real-world job training -- but then I'm a Democratic Socialist and pink right down to my underwear...

On most social issues, I'm to the left of Noam Chomsky. But, not when it comes to prison issues. If it were left up to me, prisons would be run like monasteries; self-reliant places where prisoners simply work and reflect on what got them there. I know there are many prisoners who are falsely accused. Let's hope they get help from the Innocence Project. But, there are too many of the others. Liberals always hold up the example of the guy whose in for good because he stole a slice of pizza. What's left out of the story is that this guy (and other three-strikers) was a career criminal who ripped off people every time he was released from prison. Sometimes I wonder if on an unconscious level, many young men-and prisoners are largely young men- make an unconscious decision about their life prospects and decide that they have few prospects outside of prison. On that liberals and I agree. But, I'd like to see liberals not act as though these guys never make bad decisions and have no agency.

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