Poverty and the criminal justice system are intimately related

AntiPovertySoldierOne of the most critical, yet often overlooked aspects of poverty in this nation is the escalating incarceration rate of American citizens. The Justice Policy Institute notes that since 1970, the number of incarcerated Americans has grown nearly eight-fold to a total of more than 2.2 million people today.

In addition, nearly five million more American adults are currently caught up in the criminal justice system through probation or parole. This precipitous spike in the U.S. prison population coincides with this country’s war on drugs and is representative of a proliferation in America’s poor, which now counts more than 46 million people among its ranks.

The link between poverty and contact with the criminal justice system is well established. In 2011, Alexander Busansky of the National Council on Crime Delinquency wrote that “The grim truth is that children in poverty face an increased likelihood of entering child protective services and the juvenile justice system. Similarly, adults in poverty are more likely to enter the criminal justice and adult protective services systems.”

It is clear that one of our biggest challenges as a community is keeping juveniles and adults out of prison in the first place. Nonetheless, we also must consider the health and well-being of those who have already experienced contact with the justice system. The issue of restorative justice remains vital in our fight against generational poverty in Minnesota and throughout the country.

A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirms that the State of Minnesota has one of the lowest per capita incarceration rates in the United States. Despite this fact, Minnesota ranks near the top nationally in disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. Particularly affected by these disparities are the African American and Native American communities.

Consider that while African Americans make up just over five percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly 35 percent of the Minnesota prison population. This disparity among Native Americans is even bigger as they account for 8.8 percent of all state prisoners, while making up only 1.1 percent of Minnesota’s total population.

In 2013, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reported 7,555 admissions to state prisons, nearly 65 percent of which were classified as “New Commitments” — those being incarcerated for the first time. In contrast to the low incarceration rates in Minnesota, the Bureau of Justice Statistics also notes that the state has one of the highest per capita usages of probation in the entire nation. In 2013 there were a total of 7,891 releases from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, 74 percent of which fell under the classification of “Supervised Release/Parole.”

So here we find ourselves watching thousands of our fellow citizens going into Minnesota prisons each year while thousands more are coming out, the majority of whom are returning to the Twin Cities metro. The overwhelming majority of these ex-offenders preparing to reenter society lack a stable family environment, adequate support network, and viable employment, housing, and treatment options.

A few years ago, the Hennepin County Department of Training and Employment Assistance reported a detailed examination of Minnesota’s Department of Corrections that revealed a number of critical service gaps. Among these gaps were such items as reentry strategies, community and family engagement, connection to support services, housing and employment plans, and coordination between agencies.

In addition to barriers around access to housing, employment, and mental and chemical health, the Hennepin County report also referenced the dubious issue of “community sentiment toward offender reentry.” This is where the issue of restorative justice becomes paramount. The circumstances that contributed to the incarceration of Minnesota’s ex-offenders are often the same circumstances they encounter as they reenter society.

The flood of social problems faced by ex-offenders, coupled with the lack of broad-based and integrated reentry initiatives, make it imperative that we develop and implement expansive programs and strategies to successfully transition ex-offenders back into society as engaged and responsible citizens. We must also find ways to reverse the escalating trends of poverty, violence, nihilism, and despair that plague low-income communities.

Such strategies have to foster widespread dialogue and account for the health and well-being of the entire community, including both ex-offenders and victims of crime. We cannot afford to forsake the rights and needs of any of our fellow citizens.


Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN