Allan Jones
17 min readAug 23, 2022

Being Poor Is A Crime!

Not really, but it might as well be. When a person is arrested, the judge looks at the situation and decides whether to allow bail and the amount of bail after considering things such as:

  • Flight risk — If the judge releases the accused, what is the likelihood that he or she will show up for trial.
  • Danger to Society — If released, is the accused likely to hurt somebody?
  • Severity of the crime — From vandalism to multiple murders.
  • Previous criminal record (repeat offender)
  • Ties to the community.

Seems fair, right? Not so much! Consider two people accused of a crime they did not commit. They are equal in every way when it comes to the criteria listed above. The only difference is that one of them is wealthy and the other is poor. The judge fairly applies her sentencing criteria and sets equal bail requirements for both of $10,000. You can see where this is going. The wealthy person pays the bail and goes home to live a normal life while awaiting trial, eventually gets exonerated and no harm done. The poor person sits in jail, possibly loses his job because he can’t show up, and spends the months awaiting trial housed with other prisoners, some of whom are guilty of violent crimes.

Once again, poverty rears its ugly head. An innocent poor person spent months in jail while a wealthy person moved on with little hardship. The impact of the time in jail is compounded when the poor person is released and cannot find a job that pays as well as the one he lost. The only reason people who have not been convicted are sitting in jail is because they cannot make bail. Unless the underlying crime is so severe or there is some other reason to deny or set a prohibitively high bail, people with financial resources make bail.

Housing prisoners is a profitable business, so the prison industrial complex lobbies for stiffer bail requirements (spuriously in the name of protecting citizens) to generate more profits.

Poverty also plays another role. The wealthy accused can afford to hire an experienced lawyer. The less fortunate must rely upon an overworked, underpaid, and typically inexperienced public defender. This scenario is not the exception, it is the rule. The headline of the following graphic is frightening. “70% of people in local jails are not convicted of any crime!”

This graph originally appeared in Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 is a pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States in jails, by convicted and not convicted status, and by the underlying offense, using the newest data available in March 2017. (We’ve also updated this graph for 2018.)

The “not convicted” population in American jails is larger than most other countries’ total incarceration populations.” [1]

That is an outrageous fact. It is totally inconsistent with who we want to believe we are and the values we share. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ doesn’t have the same lofty meaning when we realize how many innocent people are incarcerated. If you are an average middle-class American and you get arrested for something you did not do, it is an inconvenience, but no big deal. Right? Wrong! Look closely at the graphic below. Of the 443,000 not convicted people in jail, only 140,000 of them are accused (not yet proven guilty) of a violent crime. That means that nearly 300,000 people accused of non-violent crimes are waiting in jail for trial. People are innocent until proven guilty. That means that 300,000 innocent people are in jail indefinitely, awaiting trial. Actually, there is one more criteria that applies — ‘poor’ — too poor to afford bail. So, people are in jail because they are poor. That leads them into deeper poverty when they are finally acquitted and released and lost their job because they were in jail.

Given the backlog in many courts, some people wait for weeks or months before going to trial. In New York City, it costs $168,000 per year to house an inmate. Surely, there is a better use for that money than housing people accused of non-violent crimes. Poverty is the reason some people commit crimes, poverty is sometimes the result of someone committing a crime, and sometimes poverty is the result of someone simply being unjustly accused of a crime. It is a vicious circle that we must break.

I said people sometimes wait for weeks or months to go to trial. For some it is worse than that.

“Incarcerated for Years Without Trial: Chicago police missed more than 11,000 court dates since 2010, causing months or years of unnecessary delays for inmates awaiting trial.”[2]

Although no court documents indicate that the state had any physical evidence linking Robinson to the gun, a judge denied his request for electronic monitoring and set his bond at $7,500 — the amount he’d have to pay to be released from jail and resume work and school as he awaited trial. It was a sum neither Robinson nor his family had at their disposal. Robinson’s family set out on the first of numerous failed attempts to raise the money while Robinson stayed in jail waiting for his case to be resolved.

As Robinson reacclimated to life behind bars, he noticed something that dismayed him: a few of the inmates he’d met during his first spate in jail as a teenager were still there now, awaiting trial.

“There were guys there still fighting their cases from when I first came to the county in 2007,” Robinson said. “These guys were in there for six, seven years.”

He didn’t yet know it, but Robinson was about to join their ranks. Although formally innocent in the eyes of the law, he would spend 1,507 days in jail — more than four years — awaiting trial for the weapon-possession charges.”

Read the complete article in the link provided. It raises many other compelling issues. Robinson served four years in jail because his family could not pay $7,500 in bail. For many innocent accused citizens, ‘taking a plea’ is deemed a better option. Innocent people will plead guilty to some crime to avoid waiting in jail for a trial. In the warped system, the police and prosecutors look good because they caught and ‘convicted’ the person. Everybody is playing by the rules, but the rules do not work for everybody — especially if you are poor. Jails are just one portion of the US incarceration problem.

“If jails are for criminals, why are there still so many people behind bars after decades of declining crime? The answer is both surprising and disturbing.

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of U.S. jail inmates rose from 621,000 in 2000 to 744,600 in 2014. But as the lower part of each bar in the chart shows, this increase was not driven by the jailing of more convicted criminals. Instead, jails are now overflowing with people who are awaiting trial (upper part of each bar). These individuals, who may be innocent of the crime they’re charged with, account for 95 percent of the growth in the jail population over the past 15 years.”[3]

“In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.”[4] There are all kinds of shameful disturbing statistics about where America stands in the world concerning the percentage of our population we keep in prison — especially young black males. This includes many articles about the impact the failed “War on Drugs” has had on our prison industry’s growth. The articles provide a clearer understanding of the issues.

For America to have so many prisoners, they must have broken the law — and they did. Then why is there a problem? Because many of the laws were sponsored by the congressional representatives who were bought by the prison industry for the specific purpose of filling prisons to improve the profits of the companies who own and operate them.

“How for-profit prisons have become the biggest lobby no one is talking about[5]: The Justice Policy Institute identified the private-prison industry’s three-pronged approach to increase profits through political influence: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and building relationships and networks. On its website[6], CCA states that the company does not lobby on policies that affect “the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention.” Still, several reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars — such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law[7] — by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them[8], and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.[9] Showing just how important these policies are to the private prison industry, both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have warned shareholders that changes in these policies would hurt their bottom lines.”

During the early days of the Drug Wars, politicians decided to ‘get tough on crime’. Lobbyists for the prison industry pushed their congressmen to take this tough approach that not coincidentally meant big profits for the industry. This incarceration issue is one of those unintended consequences that has gained momentum and become a major problem. According to the Federal Register, the average annual cost to house a federal prisoner is about $28,893.40. That does not count the cost associated with police and the judicial system. We cannot begin to estimate the lost revenue from all the people in jail who could be working and paying taxes. As a very conservative wild guess, let’s add $4,000 per prisoner per year for a total of about $33K. If you were listening to a panel on incarceration, at this point, the presenter typically compares this cost to what it would cost to provide these people a good education — making the point that most people in prison did not graduate from high school. If we had spent more on educating them, (average per-pupil annual cost is $11,153) they might not have resorted to crime. I am a lifelong educator and advocate for improving public education, but I had a slightly different thought for non-violent offenders.

If we created a program that paid each non-violent prisoner in the program a living wage to work on infrastructure, public sector, and community service projects, it would cost the about same amount as we are paying to keep them in prison. I am not suggesting we give people money for nothing, and I am not suggesting we treat them as slaves. I am suggesting we create a national fund for state and municipal governments to apply for to implement infrastructure, public sector, and community service programs that people convicted of a crime are sentenced to participate in — and get paid for their work. If we do this program, we will greatly reduce crime because people who can make a living are not forced to take a living. Moreover, they would be paying taxes, contributing to the economy, not taking from it. They would be living at home and being responsible parents. They would spend the money they earn, creating jobs for others.

In addition to all these benefits, America would improve its infrastructure and provide better public services. I can imagine some conservatives complaining that those lazy out-of-work freeloaders don’t deserve a job. Would they prefer the alternative; their living in poverty or committing crimes to survive? Using this approach, everybody benefits from better infrastructure and public services, and we infuse the overall economy with additional capital — money that would otherwise be hoarded for some selfish rich person to hold onto for bragging rights. Everybody wins and nobody loses. The rich person may feel like he is losing, but that is a matter of choice — how they choose to perceive it. They could also perceive it as investing in making the world a better place. And by the way, those lazy out-of-work freeloaders primarily exist in your gaslit imagination.

There are humane things we can do to address a lack of security. Incarceration is inhumane, racially biased, and ineffective. If most criminals had a job that paid a living wage and allowed them to feel safe and secure, they would not commit a crime. We need to invest in infrastructure projects that have the double benefit of improving our infrastructure while also creating jobs that pay a living wage. We need to change the way we think about “National Security”. It is much more than military defense.

This concept is a far better return on investment than the current incarceration model that statistically results in about 70% of the people who complete serving their prison sentences committing another crime within five years of their release and repeating the cycle. This recidivism is particularly tragic for people whose first offense was a minor non-violent victimless crime. After serving their initial sentence, their criminal record is an anchor dragging them back into the criminal justice system. We need to fix the outrageous drug laws that send non-violent offenders off to prison. The additional benefit of changing the drug laws and decreasing the crimes associated with drug use is that it would make the country safer for the average citizen who might otherwise be the victim of a crime.

I am not talking about a program that would cost additional money and require more taxes. We already spend the money to house prisoners. There might be some incremental cost when we first implement the program, but over time, the cost would go back down as the number of prisoners goes down.

Issue #12 — Incarceration is bad for democracy.

Incarceration is expensive, ineffective, racially biased, anti-democratic, and inhumane; and yet the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. You are probably familiar with most of these issues, but ‘anti-democratic’ may not have been on your list. Many states take away a convicted felon’s right to vote while they are serving their sentence. A few of them take it away for life. Given the statistical reality that more poor and minority citizens than middle- and upper-class citizens are incarcerated, and that those demographics are more likely to vote Democratic, denying the felons their voting rights can have an effect on an election outcome. Follow the trail. If a person is poor, they are more likely to commit a crime than middle- and upper-class citizens. If they are convicted felons, they lose their right to vote. This penalty falls disproportionately on voters likely to vote Democratic. Completing the circle, Poverty is bad for democracy.

If incarceration is not the answer, what is? What are the alternatives? Many states and local criminal justice programs have implemented diversion or alternative sentencing programs. These programs provide a variety of options to law enforcement. They prescribe a collection of counselling, job training and placement, housing, transportation, legal, and family support services. Satisfactory completion of the prescribed program removes (expunges) the crime from the individual’s record. This seemingly minor last step makes a world of difference as the person reintegrates into society without a criminal record. Diversion programs and alternative sentences are typically only an option for non-violent minor crimes.

The arresting officer who feels the offender and society may be better served by a diversion program typically initiates it. The offender is handled outside the usual criminal justice process. Instead of going through being charged, tried, and convicted, the offender admits guilt and accepts placement in an alternative sentencing program. If the offender fails to complete the program, the judge re-invokes the guilty plea, and the offender serves a prison sentence.

An Alternative Sentence follows an individual’s trial and conviction. It is a judicial sentencing option that enables the judge to allow the convicted offender to avoid spending time in prison. As with the Diversion program, if the offender fails to follow through and complete the conditions of the alternative sentence, the judge re-invokes the conviction, and the offender does prison time. Both programs have strong incentives for the offender to successfully complete the program.

The Justice Policy Institute produced a report titled Treatment or Incarceration?[10] that explores the efficacy of diversion and alternative sentencing programs for drug crimes. The study focused on treatment for minor drug offenses, but the same logic applies to a comprehensive alternative sentencing or diversion programs for minor non-violent crime first offenders with any criminal behaviors. Their findings include: (Excerpted for brevity)

Finding 1: Treatment can be less expensive than a term of imprisonment. Reports by government agencies, centrist and center-right think tanks, and surveys of programs in Maryland show that treatment is a much less expensive option than incarceration for handling substance-abusing offenders.

[…] the evaluation found that the average cost of placing a participant in Drug Treatment Alternative Program (DTAP), including the costs of residential treatment, vocational training and support services was $32,974 — half the average cost of $64,338 if the participant had been sent to serve the average term of imprisonment for participants, 25 months.

Finding 2: Treatment can be cost effective. Other studies that used a cost-benefit analysis — a broader measure of how money spent on treatment alternatives compares to money spent on prisons in terms of crime rates and other societal benefits like employment and tax revenues — have shown that, dollar for dollar, treatment reduces the societal costs of substance abuse more effectively than incarceration does.

[…] Drug treatment in prison — such as in-prison therapeutic community programming, or that same program with community aftercare after the person leaves prison — yields a benefit of between $1.91 and $2.69 for every dollar spent on them. By contrast, therapeutic community programs outside of prison — typically work release facilities — yielded $8.87 of benefit for every program dollar spent. The reason for the difference versus in prison treatment programs was mainly due to higher program completion rates and lower recidivism.

Finding 3: Treatment can reduce substance abuse and recidivism while building communities. Beyond saving money and being more effective, a variety of different research entities have shown that treatment may work better to reduce substance abuse. Along with reduced drug addiction and recidivism, many treatment programs are community builders, helping people facing severe challenges become productive parts of their families and neighborhoods. Brooklyn’s DTAP graduates are three-and-one-half times more likely to be employed than they were before arrest — 92% were working after they completed the program.

Many states have implemented reentry programs designed to assist ex-offenders with the transition from prison to a successful career. Despite the excellent services that these programs provide, an unacceptably large percentage of ex-offenders end up back in prison. One of the biggest negative factors mitigating against the ex-offender’s success on the outside is the fact the person spent time in prison. An alternative sentence does not include a criminal conviction on the individual’s permanent record or extended time in crime school — a.k.a. jail/prison. For more information about keeping people out of prison, I recommend “Keep Out of Jail Those Who Don’t Need to Be Locked Up”[11] — Feb. 26, 2015. The author, Julia M. Stasch, is the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Have you heard about America’s Plantation Prisons? What do we call it when a person is denied any rights, has to live where his master tells him to, do what his master tells him to do, creates wealth for his master and in return gets a place to live, clothes to wear, and food to eat? We used to call it ‘Slavery’, but in the 21st century, we call it ‘Incarceration’. Today’s private prison industry is remarkably similar to the 19th century plantation economy. The difference is that slaves were almost entirely black. Prisoners are disproportionately black, but not as exclusively. However, the vast majority are from poverty-stricken communities and demographics.

Ex-offenders are the most dangerous group of people in America. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, approximately 4% of Americans commit a serious crime. People who commit crimes have some common characteristics, but on average, from the whole population, it is about 4%. If we look at specific subgroups, then the numbers change. What identifiable and targetable subgroup is most likely to commit a crime? We cannot name “Drug Dealers” or other known criminal groups because by definition they are already committing a crime. The answer is, “ex-offenders,” people who have already been convicted of a crime and have served their sentence. The numbers vary from state to state, but the statistics show that from 50% — 70% of ex-offenders will commit a crime and be back in prison within five years of being released. So, if we are interested in reducing crime and improving public safety, invest reentry programs that improve the likelihood that an ex-offender will be able to succeed in the outside world.

It is also a good economic policy. It costs an average of $40,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. The average sentence in state prison is 5 years. (Federal sentences are longer.) At $40K per year, that means that each prisoner costs the taxpayer over $200K. Recidivists, (people who go back to prison) typically serve longer sentences, so their cost is even greater.

Then there is the moral issue. A vastly disproportionate percentage of prisoners are black men — many of whom began their criminal careers as young men in poverty-ridden circumstances. For them, committing a crime was a matter of survival. They had no job, no father, no education, no home, and no hope. When they are released from prison, what do they have to go back to? How can they survive? It is morally and ethically unacceptable that society does not do more to ensure this whole class of young men is not so unfairly disadvantaged.

According to the National Institute of Justice, among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005:[12]

· “About two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years.

· Within 5 years of release, 82.1% of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 76.9% of drug offenders, 73.6% of public order offenders, and 71.3% of violent offenders.

· More than a third (36.8%) of all prisoners who were arrested within 5 years of release were arrested within the first 6 months after release, with more than half (56.7%) arrested by the end of the first year.

· A sixth (16.1%) of released prisoners were responsible for almost half (48.4%) of the nearly 1.2 million arrests that occurred in the 5-year follow-up period.

· Within 5 years of release, 84.1% of inmates who were age 24 or younger at release were arrested, compared to 78.6% of inmates ages 25 to 39 and 69.2% of those age 40 or older.”

Keeping people in prison is profitable for companies in the PIC but not for the rest of society. The PIC industry’s incentives are upside down. If the prisons do well in facilitating a prisoner’s successful return to society, the prisons get no further revenue from that individual. On the other hand, if they do poorly and the ex-offender commits another crime and returns to prison, they profit from their failure. The incentives are rewarding the wrong outcomes. Besides the financial cost of recidivism, there is the public safety cost. When ex-offenders get desperate and commit crimes, there is at least one victim involved. Because the ex-offenders spent time in prison (sometimes called ‘crime school’), they are better criminals, so they may commit several crimes, with multiple victims, before the police catch them.

Efforts by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Vera Institute paid off a few years ago and state and federal prisons instituted programs to reduce their prison populations. As the research has raised awareness of and outrage over the incarceration problem, the Prison Industrial Complex has insidiously evolved into The Treatment Industrial Complex. Essentially, they rebranded their programs from incarceration to treatment and carried on business as usual. Their incentives are still upside down. They make money by keeping people in their programs. They lose money if their facilities are not kept full. The Politico article, “Stop the Treatment Industrial Complex”[13], describes the problem in frightening terms.

The PIC lobbies for stiffer sentencing and maintaining criminal status for many otherwise victimless drug offenses. Money presently being spent on incarceration produces extraordinarily little benefit to society. Politicians must take immediate steps to reduce spending on incarceration and to use the money on programs that reduce poverty and in turn reduce crime and improve public safety.














Allan Jones

Allan is a lifetime educator with two daily goals. 1) learn something. 2) Make the world a better place.