Monday, December 13, 2010

Criminal Justice System: Labor Destroyed

I've been postponing my next post in the rethinking ideology section to do some reading on the topic of criminal convictions and employment.  I still haven't found the time to do more than skim a few articles but since I eventually do want to get around to putting this all together into a fairly coherent platform (my goal has coalesced into something similar to the Republican's Pledge to America or Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future, since actual politician's running for office haven't come up with a coherent political vision that addresses America's problems in a way that I believe could actually solve them I'm taking on the task myself so when I write to my representatives about how I dislike what they're doing I can send them a real alternate vision, this will wait till I've given some thought on each of the issues that I'd like to address in separate posts to make me think through them more, with the more radical things like Constitutional changes allowing for national level representation to be confined to appendixes) I think it's time to write another post.

What I want to address today is how adversely our criminal justice system affects our labor pool and how this is rarely considered in conversations about criminal justice topics.  The data is unfortunately too messy for me to have found any simple graphics or data I'd find worth putting up here, what there seems to be agreement about is that any criminal record at all significantly adversely affects employment prospects as well as reducing income.  Based on what I read, the reduction in income seems to be around 30% for someone with a criminal record vs. someone without.  Thus in addition to a significant amount of state spending required to incarcerate someone, we also end up permanently reducing the income of those individuals, further permanently reducing state revenue (with some potential for an offsetting effect due to reduced crime through a deterrent effect, I have no idea how these numbers compare).

What I hadn't known, but which doesn't seem at all surprising, is that this effect becomes greater with increasing education.  While I couldn't find any data on this, this finding undermined what I was initially going to propose regarding increased job training in prisons.  If having a criminal record reduces returns to education and training then the lowered incentive effects will significantly reduce any gains from these increased costs.  I'd also expect that this translates into a significant anti-education bias for families of ex-cons that have children, these children would have an example of how trying to work hard to better yourself does very little to improve your lot.  While this may not be true for most of us, ex-cons do seem to face a situation where this is much closer to the truth.  I couldn't find any data on this, so take this idea with a grain of salt, but it does seem like something that would explain a contributing factor to some of the biases present in poorer sections of society that may prevent upward economic mobility.  I'll take up the effects on families later in an additional post on the topic.

A further problem is that crimes as minor as misdemeanors can have significant effects on employment, education prospects, and access to many government services.  While these effects are much less than those for criminal convictions, permanent effects of any kind seem disproportionate to the offense when it is as minor as disorderly conduct.  I only came across this issue in one study so won't make any specific claims but a permanent sanction of any kind for something done while still immature, no one is really all that mature till 25 or even later for some, seems far too steep for things most of us have done but not gotten caught doing.

This leads me to the conclusion that we need to have a very serious discussion as a society about the costs that our criminal justice system is imposing on us.  There is simply a tremendous dead-weight loss here.  Due to other costs of prison, such as an association with greater criminality later, it seems to only be common sense to seek to reduce how often we commit people and to instead rely more on diversion schemes.  Another necessary reform is to decriminalize some areas where the losses due to the crime are far less than the losses imposed by the criminal justice system on both society and the individual.  A third option would be to expunge criminal records for minor offenses after a certain period of time, for minor crimes it may be beneficial to expunge them shortly after the time is served, barring a pattern of repeated convictions of course, though it may also be necessary to keep infractions of particular interest to employers on the books, such as larceny, at least for offenders over the age of 25 (I don't feel anyone should be permanently haunted by minor infractions committed before fully mature, 18 sure doesn't seem like the magic number for most people).

On the whole, the criminal justice system is a necessary component of any society but is much like the immune system in being able to do more harm then good in the case of a minor irritant.  In our country far too many minor irritants are regulated through the justice system in ways that seem more like a massive allergic reaction than they do a fight against a dangerous pathogen.  We have just as much responsibility as a society to insure that the criminal justice system doesn't cause disproportionate harm as we have a personal responsibility to live up to the expectations our society demands of us.  An individual failing in their personal responsibility to society does not absolve society of its responsibility to maintain a fair and just system and to cry out against the costs of a disproportionate reaction.

[I did leave out discussion of existing laws that seek to protect ex-cons from discrimination.  They exist but there is a lot of evidence existing approaches work poorly.  I think this is inevitable at current rates of incarceration, lowering this rate is an essential part of addressing this problem.]

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