When Congress returns after Labor Day, the current crop of lawmakers has a final opportunity to pass urgently needed criminal justice reform legislation before the November election. Bipartisan bills in the House and Senate would take important steps toward improving draconian sentencing laws, enhancing rehabilitation behind bars and smoothing a path to successful reentry.
This legislation represents a critically important first step toward overhauling our nation’s criminal justice system, and Congress should act to pass it without delay. However, fully addressing our nation’s legacy of mass incarceration and over-criminalization will require lawmakers to think beyond the walls of the courthouse and the prison.
A pair of recent reports estimates the extent of these public savings for two widely supported policies that would boost wages for low-paid workers, including those with criminal records who are entering or returning to the workforce. The first study, from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, finds that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020—as proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)—would reduce criminal activity by 3 percent to 5 percent, saving American communities as much as $17 billion each year.
A second analysis from the Center for American Progress evaluates the bipartisan idea of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, for low-wage workers without qualifying dependent children—the only group currently taxed further into poverty by the U.S. federal tax code. The nearly identical proposals from President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would save as much as $3.3 billion each year from enhanced public safety—savings that would add up to as much as half of the cost of the EITC expansion itself.
Indeed, these studies likely represent a low estimate of the societal benefits from raising the minimum wage and expanding the EITC, because neither takes into account criminal justice system costs—such as costs associated with enforcement, incarceration and the judicial system. Were these additional costs considered, the estimated societal benefits from the two policies would be even greater.
How do higher wages reduce crime? Living in high-poverty, low-opportunity areas may drive individuals to turn to crime because they lack other viable options to support themselves and their families. This particularly affects some groups, such as young men of color, who disproportionately suffer low pay and high unemployment rates. When wages rise, formal-sector work becomes more sustainable, with the result that crime rates fall.
What’s more, as a consequence of our nation’s four-decade failed experiment with mass incarceration, a tremendous swath of today’s adults—fully 1 in 3—now have some type of criminal record. Having even a minor record—including an arrest that never led to conviction—can make securing any employment, let alone a well-paying job, nearly impossible. Workers with records often face employer discrimination, encounter laws unnecessarily barring them from a host of trades and professions, and can be prevented from participating in training and educational opportunities that could help them succeed in the workplace.
Even when individuals with records are fortunate enough to find employment, they are disproportionately likely to work in low-paying, low-quality jobs, which often don’t pay enough to make ends meet—particularly as the federal minimum wage becomes ever more a poverty wage, shrinking for seven years and counting.
When employment is out of reach—or wages don’t pay enough to support your family—successful reentry can be impossible, paving a path to re-incarceration.
Consequently, policies that raise wages for low-paid workers have benefits beyond increasing economic security for struggling families and stimulating economic activity; they also enhance public safety, making communities safer, reducing incarceration and re-incarceration and saving taxpayer money. A comprehensive approach to criminal justice will thus fall short if it does not also include a path to economic justice. In addition to removing barriers to opportunity for returning citizens, lawmakers must take long-overdue steps to ensure that struggling working families—including the millions affected by mass incarceration—have access to fair, livable wages. By expanding the EITC and raising the minimum wage, lawmakers could take advantage of a win-win-win opportunity—giving working families greater financial security, making our communities safer and healing the many scars of mass incarceration.
Rachel West is an associate director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Rebecca Vallas is the managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
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