With 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated, many governors, legislators, and mayors have been searching for ways to sustainably reduce the number of people in prisons and jails. These leaders realize that when formerly incarcerated people cannot effectively reenter society—when they lack a place to live, access to mental health or substance abuse treatment, or the resources to get or keep a job—they may be more likely to recidivate.
This dynamic is straightforward: The poor are more likely to be incarcerated, because poverty decreases opportunities in the formal economy, increasing participation in the informal economy and the probability of criminal activity as a means of survival. The solution is also straightforward: By addressing head-on the financial troubles of people leaving incarceration, we may be able to accelerate their reintegration and transition to stable employment, reduce recidivism, and meaningfully improve the United States’ criminal justice system.
Existing reentry programs that provide job training, case management, and other services cannot address the full scope of the US mass incarceration crisis. Few high-quality studies of these interventions exist, but one of the best is a study of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) by the nonpartisan evaluation firm MDRC. (Disclosure: I advise a state government on its management of a contract with CEO). CEO has connected thousands of people across the country to transitional jobs and a suite of workforce development services when they leave incarceration. MDRC’s evaluation found New York participants’ arrests, convictions, and reincarceration fell between 16 and 22 percent. While promising, impacts of this size are insufficient to dramatically decrease the number of people in prison and jail.
We need a more robust focus on meeting financial needs to prevent recidivism, and giving people money is not a completely new idea in criminal justice reform. The University of Chicago’s Crime Lab recently conducted a randomized controlled trial of Chicago’s summer jobs program, demonstrating that it reduced the arrest rate of at-risk youth by 43 percent over 16 months. Other groups have experimented with what are effectively cash transfers. For example, the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond, California, gives cash grants and more typical social services and supports to a small number of youth responsible for the city’s high rates of gun violence. A Boston-based NGO, College Bound Dorchester, similarly gives around 40 students with criminal records a $400 weekly stipend as they progress through high school equivalency classes, passing exams, matriculating to college, and graduating with an Associate’s degree. While gentrification and other reform initiatives make it impossible to isolate these two interventions’ impacts, Richmond’s homicide rate has decreased by more than 50 percent during the last seven years, and both programs have seen their participants’ criminal activity decline precipitously. We should expand on these successes.
It is past time that a government or nonprofit combined a minimally conditional cash transfer with traditional reentry interventions and hire an evaluator to assess the experiment’s impact. While a man exiting prison today might receive job training and see a clinician for mental health needs, an additional cash transfer could enable him to secure a place to live, a mass transit fare, and groceries for his family. Cash—or a restricted, EBT-styled debit card—would provide for immediate needs and ease the stressful reentry process.
This proposal is not as unrealistic as it may sound. It’s true that on the political front, the Trump Administration has effectively declared a second war on drugs, instructing federal prosecutors to charge alleged offenders with the most serious crimes possible and attempting to link marijuana use to violent crime. But the federal government actually incarcerates less than 10 percent of the country’s prison population, and it appears likely that many state and local governments plan to press ahead with criminal justice reform without federal support.
And while budget offices at all levels of government are operating under severe fiscal pressures, this experiment is feasible for two reasons. First, a pilot would not be prohibitively expensive. For example, providing 500 individuals with $500 per month for a year would cost $3 million. This isn’t chump change, but philanthropists have demonstrated their interest in both criminal justice reform and universal basic income-styled cash transfer programs, and some might be willing to foot the bill. Second, reduced spending on expensive policing and incarceration will at least partially defray costs if, as evidence suggests, the intervention decreases criminal activity.
There is a predictable ethical objection to this proposal: “Why should ex-cons get cash rewards when they’ve committed crimes?” Similar didactic arguments have been made against developing-world transfer programs targeting the poor, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to behave responsibly and should not be given a prize for the decisions that led to their deprived state. Yet, as with the crime-focused initiatives mentioned above, cash transfer programs have demonstrated large benefits, including increases in income and employment that persist after the transfers stop. Of course, people convicted of crimes in the United States are different from poor people in the developing world, but this evidence should lead critics to question their reflexive, and arguably paternalistic, opposition. An intervention that relieves the acute symptoms of poverty can provide people with the opportunity to make decisions that benefit both themselves and their communities. Moreover, given the immoral state of the mass incarceration status quo—in which black communities suffer the toll of harsh criminal justice policies much more than white ones, prisons and jails punish people with substance abuse disorders but lack the resources to treat them, and sentences are years longer than they need to be to deter crime—we should seek effective remedies wherever they lie.
One place that is particularly ripe for this experiment is New York City. Crime is at record lows, and unlike in many other American cities over the past couple years, is continuing to fall. The mayor and other political leaders have committed to halving the city’s jail population and then shutting down the notorious Rikers Island jail complex. The city has a plethora of high-quality reentry providers to ease people’s transition from incarceration into society, and will soon have guaranteed both enrollment in such programs during detention and a transitional job upon release. Moreover, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office collected more than $800 million of asset forfeiture money from banks that it is spending on criminal justice reform initiatives. A pilot of sufficient scale to set up a high-quality evaluation might not even need to rely on philanthropic or taxpayer dollars.
Criminal justice reformers should continue to push for sentencing and prosecutorial reform, but must also experiment with new approaches to supporting people leaving incarceration. By directly confronting the poverty that underlies many cases of recidivism, we can build on the successes of existing reentry programs and begin to dismantle America’s destructive legacy of mass incarceration.