The strong links between poverty and crime are both historic and complex.
Rockefeller Drug Laws
Let’s rewind to the 1970s. New York City was battling a heroin epidemic; there were junkies on street corners and the homicide rate
was four times as high as it is today. New York's Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, originally saw drugs as a social problem,
not a criminal one, supporting drug rehabilitation, job training and housing. But after President Nixon declared a national war on drugs,
Rockefeller did an about-face and launched a campaign to toughen New York's laws, now known as the “Rockefeller Drug Laws”. He called for
something unheard of: mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts — even those caught with small amounts
of marijuana, cocaine or heroin. The Rockefeller drug laws sailed through New York's Legislature and pretty quickly this idea of getting
tough, even on petty criminals, went viral, spreading across the U.S. These laws weren’t amended until 2004.
The United States has earned the dubious distinction of imprisoning more people than any other country on earth. As a result of tougher penal policies enacted in the U.S. 30 years ago, the country's incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the 1970s. About 2 million Americans currently live behind bars—in jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries—and millions more are on parole or probation, or have been in the recent past.
The tougher regulations originally put in place to improve poverty stricken neighborhoods by reducing crime, have cost communities more than they’ve helped. Data shows how poverty creates prisoners and how prisons in turn fuel poverty, not just for individuals but for entire demographic groups. Here are some specifics:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. And one in two black men without a high-school diploma will go to prison at some time in their lives.
In some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, children have a better chance of going to prison than to college.
While behind bars, inmates accumulate limited education, training or labor force experience and are therefore especially likely to experience poverty post- release.
Ex-felons face discrimination by potential employers, making it hard to find employment.
After being out of prison for 20 years, fewer than one-quarter of ex-cons without a high school diploma were able to rise above the bottom 20 percent of income earners.