Criminal Justice Reform and Helping Poor Americans: Ideas From Michael D. Tanner


Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through The Inclusive Economy by Michael D. Tanner, a book all about new perspectives and approaches to helping poor, lower class Americans.

In the book, Tanner takes a critical look at our current welfare apparatus and analyzes how effective it is. He points out that although our current programs have brought millions out of poverty, they provide more of a band aid for lower income individuals rather than actually fixing the issue. More over, he points to how Americans who are assisted by programs like TANF (welfare payments) and SNAP (food stamps) would not be self sufficient if the programs were taken away.

Tanner does not come out saying that welfare is bad and harms our country, and his solution is to not eradicate welfare programs. He instead offers libertarian reforms outside of welfare to things like housing, education, and banking that would help pull people out of poverty and make them self-sufficient rather than just provide them with assistance.

One of his ideas has really stuck with me so far: criminal justice reform. He lays out many areas of our system that disproportionately affect low income individuals and how fixing these flaws can provide a more level playing field for people across all classes of life.

I found his arguments to be very important in the debate of welfare reform and helping the poor, so I would like to share some of his ideas here. I hope these will help provide you with some new perspectives.

The Criminal Justice System Disproportionately Harms the Poor

Tanner begins his criminal justice chapter by first pointing out why our system has a negative economic impact on lower class Americans.

In an earlier stage in the book, Tanner points to a few things that greatly increase the chance of being in poverty. One important influence is being in a household run by only one parent. He points to how this essentially cuts possible household income in half and creates the dilemma of having to forgo work to care for young kids.

How does our criminal justice system contribute to this? Tanner points to the disproportionate number of people incarcerated from low income communities, especially minority ones. He uses the War on Drugs as an example, discussing how individuals across races and ethnic groups are similarly as likely to use illicit drugs, but low income African Americans are about 3 times as likely to get arrested for it.

As a result of low income communities being disproportionately targeted, there is smaller marriage pool for single parents within them, especially for single mothers. For women with kids, there is also the deterrent of not wanting to marry an ex-convict. Together, this increases the chance of single parent homes that sets the family on a steeper path towards poverty through less income and support.

Along with this, Tanner points to the difficulty felons have finding meaningful employment after being released. He points to research that shows that, “…applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview request or job offer, relative to otherwise identical applicants with no criminal record….” (pg.132).

As a result of this difficulty, ex-convicts have a harder time providing for a family or paying things like child support. This leads them and their affected kids to be more likely to turn to crime as a means of income. After all, people often turn to non-violent crimes like drug dealing and prostitution as a means of income to begin with. If ex-convicts have less opportunity after prison and their kids have less financial support, both will be more likely to turn to crime after the parent’s imprisonment, leading to a viscous cycle.

Tanner points to how increased levels of imprisonment during previous decades exacerbated these issues since it has led to more single-parent households and caused more people to have difficulty finding meaningful employment.

Tanner’s Ideas For Reforms

With these issues in mind, Tanner proposes a few reforms to help level the playing field:

1) “Look hard at over-criminalization and victimless crime laws.”

Here he points to how laws intended to stop victimless crimes cause more harm than good. One example is the use of traffic citations for municipal revenue growth. During its investigation into their police practices, the Justice Department found that Ferguson, Missouri, police officers were pushed to hand out as many citations and fines as possible to build revenues. For a lower income city that is majority minority, this led to overly punitive financial penalties for things like speeding being levied on people who are less likely to be able to pay them. With many people unable to pay the fines, debts grew and the punishments worsened, leading to arrests for citations that were originally small infractions. Overall in 2013, “…32,975 arrest warrants were issued for a city with a population of just 21,000” (p. 135).

He also points to prostitution laws and how they disproportionately affect low income women who are most of the time just trying to make money for them and their family. Rather than help provide better opportunities for these women, our laws end of up causing them to miss out on possible employment while in jail and lead to more difficulty finding formal work in the long run.

If these kinds of victimless crimes are revised to have less severe penalties, people will be less burdened by criminal records to begin with and thus have lower chances of falling into the poverty cycles mentioned before.

2) “Make the enforcement of laws by police and prosecutors fairer and more equal for all defendants.”

Here, Tanner points to how criminal justice actors are not all held accountable for treating people in the system equally. To begin with, he points to the disproportionate number of stops and arrests made on those who are poor and those who belong to minority groups.

Once in the system, these same people often face more consequences in the short term, even if they are not found guilty or charges are dropped. Take bail for example. Tanner points to how the poor are far less likely to be able to post the requested amount due to their low income level. This then results with them being held in jail until their trial or hearing, leading to the loss of one’s job and income as well as removal from possibly fragile families. Again, loss of a parent within the household has far reaching consequences on household income and the ability to provide for children.

Tanner also points to disproportionate punishments for crimes. He mentions three strike laws that can lead to life in prison after three convictions. What happens if the three convictions are dealing marijuana, writing a bad check, and non-violent theft? Even for three non-violent crimes, life in prison can follow if the state has a three strike law. This helps create disproportionate punishments for lower income individuals who are more prone to crime, even if its victimless crime.

The more time people spend in prison, the greater the economic impact from lost work opportunity and possible job growth. If low income individuals are more prone to crime and face disproportionate treatment and penalties, they will in turn face a more severe economic impact, making it even harder for the individuals who struggle the most.

3) “Make it easier for ex-offenders to reenter society and participate in the economy.”

Finally, Tanner mentions the importance of people reentering society. Once a person is released, their sentence should be over and they should be given the opportunity to work again and participate in the economy.

Due to company policies and vague background checks though, many places will not even consider someone with a record, regardless of what they were convicted of. Does selling an ounce of weed when you were 19 in order to get some income mean that you will not be a quality worker? Not necessarily. Does it mean you do not deserve a meaningful job? It shouldn’t.

The bias does not end here. Tanner points to how 80 percent of landlords run background checks on possible tenants, even if there is no evidence that a criminal record indicates a bad tenant. It is also far harder to get into a college or university with a record, limiting future opportunities. Many federal tuition assistance programs ban people for life who have felony drug charges, too.

Altogether, this makes ex-convicts more likely to turn back to crime as a source of income. Without a way back into the mainstream economy, people who go to prison often face a lifetime of hardship. Issues such as single-parent homes with the second parent in prison and people being stuck on welfare without many employment opportunities to help them be self sufficient are made worse through the way ex-convicts are viewed in our society.

A Better Way of Helping the Poor

For those who do not know me, I was originally a criminology major at Penn State before falling in love with economics. Even though I did not get the criminology degree, I still really enjoy the field and love connecting it to economics. As a result, this chapter in The Inclusive Economy really resonated with me. Without a level criminal justice playing field, there is no way for lower income individuals to have the same opportunities as those from higher income households.

There are other economic benefits to reforms that Tanner does not even mention. For one, less people in prison requires less money to fund the prisons. This money could then be better allocated to something more impactful, like education or reducing a state’s deficit.

The good thing is that there is some movement at the federal level in the form of The First Step Act. This legislation addresses some of Tanner’s points, such as easing three strike rules and limiting sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine (crack is used disproportionately by poor individuals and carries harsher penalties).

This only applies to the federal prison system (about 180,000 of the 2.1 million inmates in the U.S.) but is a start that states can follow.

Tanner makes a strong argument about how to help the poor more effectively through things outside of welfare. If you found his ideas on criminal justice reform interesting, I highly recommend checking out the entire book, The Inclusive Economy. He has many more great ideas throughout it.


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