Concerns over the rapid spread of coronavirus in jails and prisons have led to calls for inmates’ early release in order to reduce the spread of the virus. As a result, jail and prison populations are falling dramatically. There is good reason to release people who aren’t an immediate public safety threat — we are living through an unprecedented health crisis, and saving lives should be our top priority. However, the rapid release of people from jail and prison, into an economy with skyrocketing unemployment, may set them up for failure.
Releasing people from prison at a time when jobs are scarce increases the likelihood that they will commit another crime and be locked up again. This is partly because they themselves are unable to find a job, and partly because their friends and family are out of work and less able to provide crucial support. Our rush to get people out of jails and prisons to protect their health may unintentionally make it harder for them to build stable lives and avoid criminal activity. For the sake of these individuals and their communities, we should move quickly to make sure they have the support they’ll need in the weeks and months ahead.
What should we do? Send them checks!
People often think that jobs are the key to reducing crime, but recent research suggests that money matters more than employment itself. Why? Most directly, giving people money reduces the need to commit financially-motivated crimes, such as theft or robbery. It also gives people the means to stay away from friends or family who are negative influences or might draw them back into old behaviors. Extra disposable income also helps people access programs that put them on a permanently-better track — for instance, education or health care — and reduces financial stress that can hamper decision-making. In practice, the structure that comes with a job doesn’t seem as important as the money that jobs provide.
It’s not obvious that giving people money will always reduce crime: If recipients spend that money on drugs or alcohol, the net effect could be negative. But several studies show that, on average, more money equals less crime.
For instance, Chicago’s Homelessness Prevention Call Center provides emergency financial assistance for housing needs (to cover rent or utility bills). It has money available on some days but not others, and it is unpredictable which days money will be available to people who call asking for help. This sets up a natural experiment, with treatment and control groups akin to a randomized trial. Some people are lucky and call on days when money happens to be available — they receive the funds they need to cover their bills; others are unlucky and happen to call on days when money is not available — they do not receive any assistance. By comparing the outcomes of these two groups, researchers measured the causal effect of receiving financial assistance. For callers with some previous criminal justice involvement, receiving this emergency financial assistance reduced the likelihood of another arrest in the next two years by a whopping eighteen percent.
Another example comes from Uruguay: In that country, recidivism was highest on the first day of release from prison. A 2010 policy suddenly tripled the amount of “gate money” received at the time of release, such that people released on one day got the standard amount, and otherwise identical people released the next day got three times as much. This sudden change allowed researchers to measure the causal effect of the extra money, and they found that it essentially eliminated first-day offending. This effect was driven by a drop in property offenses, and crime did not appear to be delayed to subsequent days. In other words, making sure that people had the money they needed when they walked out the prison door helped them make choices on that first day that put them on a sustainable track.
Finally, several studies show that making people with criminal records eligible for public assistance — such as welfare, SNAP, the EITC, and financial aid for college — reduces recidivism. Many states ban people with particular criminal records from receiving such assistance, in the hopes that this will deter would-be offenders from committing crime. There is no evidence that these bans have any such benefits; in practice, most people simply aren’t thinking that far ahead when deciding to engage in crime. But we do know that these policies make it harder for people coming out of prison to avoid criminal activity going forward. On net these policies do more harm than good.
People released from jail and prison in the coming months will struggle even more than usual to find jobs, and their friends and family are likely struggling as well. All of the research I discuss above suggests that there would be big societal benefits to sending checks to people in this group. The politics of this will surely be difficult — lots of groups are clamoring for federal resources right now, and people with criminal records may not seem all that sympathetic. But we all benefit when our communities are safer, and paying to put people back in prison later will cost us more in the long run.
The federal government is preparing to send checks to U.S. citizens to mitigate the negative consequences of the current economic downturn. Unfortunately, the government’s current plan could leave out most people who were recently incarcerated. To receive a check, people need to have filed federal income taxes in the last couple years. But people who have been incarcerated may not have filed taxes if their incomes were too low to owe anything (perhaps because they were locked up). Currently, the best option for those with low incomes is to quickly file taxes for previous years so that their income and contact information is on file with the IRS. This sounds straightforward but we all know that filing taxes can be anything but. Relying on this approach alone is likely to miss many people who need help.
What else could we do to ensure that returning citizens get the money they are entitled to? One option is to follow Uruguay’s example and increase the gate money that people receive — simply hand these checks out to people as they’re being released. Alternatively, for those currently on probation or parole, local criminal justice agencies may have contact information on file. The IRS could collect this information to identify people that their tax records missed. And all states should reconsider policies that ban people with criminal records from receiving public assistance.
The question of how to get resources to those coming out of jail and prison highlights a broader need to improve our ability find people in many low-income, at-risk groups. Such citizens are especially vulnerable at times like this, and it will benefit all of us to figure out how to help them.