Volume 30

The Interplay of Mass Incarceration and Poverty

by Brianna Borrelli

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, imprisoning over two million people. Not only does mass incarceration have great monetary costs for Americans as the United States spends over $250 billion each year on incarceration, but the United States also faces significant social costs as a result of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration significantly drives poverty and hinders social progress by making it more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to find employment, vote, or access public benefits while also reducing the support, earning potential, academic success, and stability of spouses and children of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals. Not only does mass incarceration drive poverty throughout the United States, but poverty itself exasperates mass incarceration as the American criminal justice system criminalizes poverty and punishes people for being poor by imprisoning people who are unable to pay small fees and fines, who cannot afford bail, who are experiencing homelessness, who cannot afford mental health treatment, or who engage in sex work. Thus, this Note will demonstrate the absolute necessity of de-criminalizing poverty in order to combat mass incarceration in the United States.

While there has been extensive research and literature on mass incarceration in the United States, there has been less of an emphasis on the interplay between mass incarceration and poverty. This Note explores this interplay by discussing (1) the driving forces of mass incarceration in the United States, (2) how the criminalization of poverty drives mass incarceration and how the impact of incarceration exacerbates poverty and hunger, and (3) recent trends in recent criminal justice reform. To encourage discourse and action to reduce mass incarceration and poverty in the United States, the Note will then offer several proposals for reform efforts to decriminalize poverty and refute the anticipated critiques of the reforms.

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