Research Findings

The criminal justice system as an engine for downward socioeconomic mobility

September 17, 2018

Over the past forty years, the growth of the criminal justice system in the United States has had many damaging consequences for individuals, ranging from economic hardship to health and family problems. Nobody doubts that getting involved in the criminal justice system affects one’s future life chances, especially because prospective employers (and even institutions of higher education) are increasingly requiring applicants to disclose any criminal past.

But isn’t this really just a problem for serious criminals serving time in prison or for poor people, who lack the financial resources to buy their way out of any problems with superior legal representation and who are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system in the first place?

Intergenerational mobility in the criminal justice system  

In the era of mass incarceration, America’s courts and jails are increasingly filled with low-level, non-violent offenders who come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. With this in mind, we sought to examine the economic consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system for people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, using nationally representative data on young adults and their parents.

We defined socioeconomic background based on the education and occupation of one’s parents. Then, we assessed young adults’ depth of involvement in the criminal justice system, ranging from no involvement up to incarceration. Finally, we measured the young adults’ own achievements in terms of their education and occupations by the time they were 26 – 32 years old.

Our expectations for this study were mixed. On the one hand, the consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system might be the same for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. After all, a criminal record conceivably looks the same in the eyes of an employer regardless of whether one has advantaged or disadvantaged parents.

Alternatively, as noted earlier, coming from a family with greater economic resources might buffer against any consequences associated with the criminal justice system.

One with most to lose may lose the most

Results from this study suggested something entirely different. We found that individuals from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds actually experienced the greatest declines in socioeconomic achievements relative to where they started, followed by individuals from average socioeconomic backgrounds. In other words, children who arguably had the most to lose from involvement in the criminal justice system actually ended up losing the most.

Moreover, the negative socioeconomic consequences of criminal justice system involvement were observed in instances where involvement was as minor as an arrest without a conviction.

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, however, we found no significant relationship between involvement in the criminal justice system and their socioeconomic achievements in adulthood.

Based on these results, we reach three main conclusions. First, the consequences associated with involvement in the criminal justice system are not limited to extreme instances such as incarceration. Certainly, those who are sentenced to incarceration notice the greatest economic consequences; however, even arrestees who are ultimately not convicted of a crime see economic ramifications from their system involvement.

The pretrial detention consequence

It is possible that these individuals fall within the increasingly problematic category of pretrial detention, meaning they still experience a short stint of jail time immediately following arrest, even though they are ultimately found not guilty of a crime. This increases their chances of missing school and/or losing their job.

Second, the economic consequences resulting from the criminal justice system vary depending on one’s socioeconomic background, and children from the most advantaged families experience the greatest loss in status.

The criminal justice system labels released offenders as criminal, which stigmatizes them as inferior and makes it increasingly difficult to find work. For advantaged children in particular – who are born with the resources and opportunities for economic success – getting involved in the criminal justice system may severely block the path toward fruitful socioeconomic endeavors that once laid ahead in their future.

Third, criminal justice system involvement does little to the economic achievements of those from poorer families.

These individuals are at the greatest risk of being involved in the criminal justice system, so why are there no significant consequences associated with this involvement?

Nothing to lose

We believe that the preexisting disadvantages for children from poorer backgrounds, as well as the widespread exposure to the criminal justice system for this group, help explain this finding. Because these children grow up with so few resources, they are the least likely to be educationally and economically successful. Moreover, the high arrest and incarceration rates of disadvantaged individuals have made involvement in the criminal justice system a normal part of life for this group.

As a whole, our findings show how mass incarceration has undermined the future life chances of many in the United States. Perhaps most important is the fact that criminal justice system involvement has no effect on later socioeconomic achievements for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, because they have so little to lose in the first place. To us, this demonstrates just how frighteningly large the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has become.

Our hope is that this research will continue to motivate change in the excessive use of the criminal justice system.

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