Study Calculates Losses to the Economy from Incarceration

Written by Melanie G. Snyder on Saturday - February 04, 2012.

Washington, DC: A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research uses Bureau of Justice Statistics data to estimate that, in 2008, the United States had between 12 and 14 million ex-offenders of working age. Because a prison record or felony conviction greatly lowers ex-offenders' prospects in the labor market, we estimate that this large population lowered the total male employment rate that year by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points. In GDP terms, these reductions in employment cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.  For a downloadable copy of the article, click here.

Estimates suggest that in 2008 there were between 5.4 and 6.1 million ex-prisoners (compared to a prison population of about 1.5 million and a jail population of about 0.8 million in that same year). The calculations from the study also suggest that in 2008 there were between 12.3 and 13.9 million ex-felons.  In 2008, about one in 33 working-age adults was an ex-prisoner and about one in 15 working-age adults was an ex-felon. About one in 17 adult men of working-age was an ex-prisoner and about one in 8 was an ex-felon.

An extensive body of research has established that a felony conviction or time in prison makes individuals significantly less employable. It is not simply that individuals who commit crimes are less likely to work in the first place, but rather, that felony convictions or time in prison act independently to lower the employment prospects of ex-offenders.