Authors: Bruce Western
May 12, 2008
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

The growth of the penal system over the past thirty years has been a significant factor in redrawing the landscape of urban poverty in America. Prisons and jails now hold 2.25 million inmates—most of them minorities and poorly educated young men. Swelled largely by drug offenders and parole violators, state and federal prisons currently return more than seven hundred thousand prisoners each year to their communities. Roughly two-thirds of these ex-prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. About half of ex-prisoners who return to jail are returned for non-violent, technical violations of parole. Although growth in the prison population has helped reduce crime rates over the past decade, reincarcerating so many ex-prisoners has proven costly not only for the states that must foot the bill, but also for families, communities, and the overall economy. Studies show that incarceration is associated with reduced earnings and higher unemployment rates later in life, as well as increased rates of separation and divorce.

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