Research Communications

Ex-convicts rack up illegal income, study finds 

By Philip Barnes

Ex-convicts make almost 10 times more money illegally than those who have never spent time behind bars, a new study finds.

Ohio University sociologist Donald Hutcherson examined both criminal and conventional labor market data of 8,984 individuals documented in the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Longitudinal Survey for Youth from 1997 to 2005. The annual assessment addresses issues such as criminal history, family relations, education, and hardcore drug use.

"The original goal of this survey was to collect information on labor lives of youth in the United States, so it was incredibly useful for my research on incarceration and its connection with future criminal earnings," says Hutcherson, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the university's Lancaster campus. "We collected 5,000 specific pieces of information from each of the samples starting when subjects were 12 to 16 years old. With all that data, you can imagine how exhaustive the process was."

Hutcherson found that on average, the ex-incarcerated individuals have an annual illegal income of $1,070 while those with no prison history make just $120 illegally per year. The results were published last year in The Prison Journal.


Donald Hutcherson (Photo by Cheri Russo)

"Those who spend time in prison simply fail in the conventional labor market," he says. "There's a stigma of having a prison record, and that comes at the cost of social capital, or connections with people who could land you a job."

The survey data back up his claims. The ex-incarcerated are less likely to be employed than those who were never imprisoned (38 percent vs. 50 percent, respectively).

Hutcherson adds that most criminals aren't receiving an education or gaining work experience in prison, causing them to turn back to networks of crime for illegal income. And that puts them right back where they started.

Approximately 70 percent of criminals are re-arrested and 30 to 40 percent land in prison again after release, he says.

"Since the early 1970s, we have moved from a rate of 50 people incarcerated per 100,000 to something around 800 per every 100,000. The goal was to reduce the crime rate, but that hasn't happened," he notes. "We need to do something else with this population."

Hutcherson suggests a plan of intensive probation for non-violent offenders, which make up more than half of the prison population.

"We shouldn't be sending non-violent offenders to prison," Hutcherson says. "Typically, they aren't incarcerated long enough for drug treatment, and of course, you have the stigma of a prison record, leading to unemployment in the conventional job market."

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.