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With 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated, many governors, legislators, and mayors have been searching for ways to sustainably reduce the number of people in prisons and jails. These leaders realize that when formerly incarcerated people cannot effectively reenter society—when they lack a place to live, access to mental health or substance abuse treatment, or the resources to get or keep a job—they may be more likely to recidivate.
This dynamic is straightforward: The poor are more likely to be incarcerated, because poverty decreases opportunities in the formal economy, increasing participation in the informal economy and the probability of criminal activity as a means of survival. The solution is also straightforward: By addressing head-on the financial troubles of people leaving incarceration, we may be able to accelerate their reintegration and transition to stable employment, reduce recidivism, and meaningfully improve the United States’ criminal justice system.
There is a predictable ethical objection to this proposal: “Why should ex-cons get cash rewards when they’ve committed crimes?”
Similar didactic arguments have been made against developing-world transfer programs targeting the poor, suggesting that they cannot be trusted to behave responsibly and should not be given a prize for the decisions that led to their deprived state. Yet, as with the crime-focused initiatives mentioned above, cash transfer programs have demonstrated large benefits, including increases in income and employment that persist after the transfers stop.
An intervention that relieves the acute symptoms of poverty can provide people with the opportunity to make decisions that benefit both themselves and their communities. Moreover, given the immoral state of the mass incarceration status quo—in which black communities suffer the toll of harsh criminal justice policies much more than white ones, prisons and jails punish people with substance abuse disorders but lack the resources to treat them, and sentences are years longer than they need to be to deter crime—we should seek effective remedies wherever they lie.