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Crime and Poverty: Idle Hands is Crime’s Workshop

On Behalf of | Mar 25, 2017 | Firm News

One in seven children in Wisconsin and nearly 11% of the state’s population – more than a half-million people – lived in poverty in 2007, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison report (The First Wisconsin Poverty Report).  According to the report, the three areas with the highest poverty rates for all individuals were Milwaukee County (17.3%); a 10-county region in northwestern Wisconsin near Lake Superior (14.4%); and Rock County (12.8%). Meanwhile, Waukesha County had the lowest poverty rate with 3.7%.  Milwaukee County showed a wide variation in poverty rates, ranging from 40% in Milwaukee’s central city to 5.4% around Brown Deer and Whitefish Bay.  An estimated 158,245 Milwaukeeans lived in poverty. For a family of four with two adults and two children, the poverty threshold was an annual income of $21,954.
In fact, Milwaukee emerged as America’s fourth-most impoverished big city in 2009.
Why should those numbers matter to you?  Simply put, because the availability of jobs affects recidivism.
In an article published in Journal of Public Economics (December 2016) by Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School entitled “Local Labor Markets and Criminal Recidivism,” found that “greater  employment and wages in the county to which an offender returns upon release significantly decreases the risk of recidivism.  The impact of higher wages on recidivism is larger in sectors that report being more willing to hire ex-offenders, and larger for both black offenders and first-time offenders.  Wage effects are larger in states that legally restrict ex-offender eligibility for food stamps and welfare benefits, and employment effects are larger in states that prohibit private employers from discriminating on the basis of criminal history.”  See also, Pawasarat, John, “Ex-Offender Populations in Milwaukee County” (2009).ETI Publications, Paper 37 (released prisoners are among the most difficult labor force populations to serve and least likely to be successfully engaged in sustained employment); Joanna Y. Marks, Julia B. Isaacs, Timothy M. Smeeding, and Katerine A. Thornton, “Wisconsin Poverty Report: Were Antipoverty Policies Effective in 2009?‘ (May 2011).
In summary, Professor Yang finds that:

  • During a typical economic expansion, wages for low-skilled jobs grow 4 to 5 percent. At the same time, recidivism falls by 2.3 to 4 percent.
  • A growth in low-skilled wages by 1 percent is associated with a 0.43 to 0.46 percent decline in the risk of returning to prison.
  • Males and younger offenders are more likely than women and older offenders to return to prison; black offenders are more likely to return than white or Hispanic offenders. Those with higher education levels are less likely to return to prison.
  • Black offenders are more likely than white offenders to respond positively to an increase in wages.
  • Prisoners convicted of theft are more likely to return to prison than those convicted of violent crimes or drug-related offenses.
  • Prisoners who are freed by a mandatory parole are more likely to return to prison than those who are released at the recommendation of a parole board.
  • Recidivism among prisoners released during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 increased by 5.5 to 9.6 percent. Some states like California released inmates during the recession to reduce overcrowding. But because of the tough job market at the time, the move “may have impeded the ability of ex-offenders to find employment, potentially increasing future recidivism and endangering public safety.” The association is especially apparent because wages in two industries that hire a number of former inmates – construction and manufacturing – fell at the time.
  • Yang calculates that 55,000 inmates released during the Great Recession were at risk of returning to prison within three years. With an average prison stay of over a year, “these offenders may entail over $1.6 billion in costs, in addition to decreases to public safety.”