The Prison Trap

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At the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, which Pope Francis visited on Sunday, 80 percent of inmates haven’t yet been convicted of any crime. They are being held in this dangerous and overcrowded jail while awaiting trial, mostly because they are too poor to afford bail.

The prison population in America is soaring, from 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.3 million today. But the increasing incarceration rate doesn’t correlate with an increase in crime. Instead, experts point to experimental new policies, many stemming from the war on drugs — things like mandatory sentencing, stop and frisk, broken windows and zero tolerance — which disproportionately affect poor minority communities.

Most people living behind bars were poor to begin with — the average income prior to incarceration was just $19,185 a year in 2014 dollars — and prison can trap them in poverty. People earn little or nothing during the months or years they serve, have difficulty finding jobs after their release, and are often banned from subsidized housing and barred from receiving cash benefits. The effects can even be generational; a parent in prison often leaves children living in poverty, and the cycle continues.

But of all the issues Pope Francis has highlighted during his trip to the US, reform of this broken system is one of the few with bipartisan support. In this interview, Bill Keller of The Marshall Project talks about why right and left are coming together over criminal justice reform, and what proposals are on the table.