Economic mobility is a foundational component of the American dream. But the carceral system acts in multiple ways to undermine that dream. It disproportionately targets poor people and also creates, exacerbates, and entrenches poverty and wealth disparity. There are almost innumerable “collateral costs” associated with the carceral system, measured by the size of the effect of incarceration on a person’s access to prosperity. Notably, James Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at NYU, calls the effect of a criminal record “eternal”. And indeed, contact with our criminal legal infrastructure has robbed millions of Americans of their earning potential and familial access to income.
There are two primary mechanisms connecting the criminal legal system to economic instability and lack of mobility. Being arrested or incarcerated suppresses income through job loss, barriers to job acquisition, reduced future earnings, limited wages available post-release, poor economic mobility, loss of ability to achieve generational wealth (homeownership, education, savings), and the widening racial wealth gap. It also extracts wealth from people who have been entangled in the system through layers of associated costs, fines, fees, and other financial punishments. Countless predatory financial mechanisms exist—within, relying on, or alongside the criminal legal system—to keep poor people poor.