Colorado’s Racial Wealth Gap: Mass Incarceration & the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Over the past 30 years, the United States has incarcerated an unprecedented number of people, far surpassing our own population growth and the per-capita rate of all other developed nations. In 2010, some 7.25 million Americans were either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole — an increase of more than 5 million since 1980. These trends have also produced a complementary phenomenon: the school-to-prison pipeline.

Related: Colorado’s Racial Wealth Gap: Homeownership & Credit

Nationwide, black Americans account for roughly 13 percent of the population, but make up more than 37 percent of those incarcerated. These disproportionate rates have led to discussions about criminal justice reform; unfortunately, these conversations often overlook the financial and economic impacts, as well as policies and history, that have created this trend. Mass incarceration is both a product and cause of the racial wealth gap.

Through the context of the policies and history that created and continue these trends, the Bell’s latest brief in our racial wealth gap series explores the impact of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline in Colorado.

Impacts of Mass Incarceration in Colorado

More than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals nationwide are unemployed one year after being released. Those who do find jobs take home 40 percent less pay annually. Incarceration is highly disruptive for career prospects and can have a long-standing “scarring effect” on formerly incarcerated individuals and their employment prospects, which can seriously affect the purchasing and earning power of families. Several studies show by removing the primary earners from a household, mass incarceration increases the depth of poverty of among poor families. These effects can have intergenerational consequences, leading to higher rates of child poverty.

In terms of government assistance, incarceration often limits an individual’s access to benefits. For example, Coloradans with a drug conviction can only receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits if they complete a drug rehabilitation program deemed acceptable by their county. Free drug rehab programs are extremely rare; that is, if a given county health department will even accept it. For those with a higher likelihood of unemployment and being impoverished, restrictive access to assistance punishes poverty, makes self-sufficiency less likely, and often leads to recidivism. In Colorado, the recidivism rate is 50 percent — a rate that’s 10 points higher than the national average.

These impacts have a ripple effect in communities, which some researchers call “durable inequality,” meaning residents cannot escape what might otherwise be short-term poverty. Researchers James Lynch and William Sabol suggest this is because mass incarceration disrupts a community’s informal methods of social control and social support by breaking up families, removing purchasing power from the neighborhood, increasing reliance on government support programs, and generally erecting even higher barriers to legitimate development and financial well-being.

Learn more about how mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline has affected the racial wealth gap in Colorado by reading our new brief now.