Republicans who refuse to recognize structural racism need only look at the impact of one discriminatory policy for proof: mass incarceration. That is what Federal Reserve officials are doing as the Biden administration focuses on the failure to integrate formerly incarcerated people back into the economy.

The high level of incarceration in the U.S., especially among Americans of color and indigenous people, constrains the labor market and the economy’s ability to reach its full potential, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic said.
“Incarceration is a drag on our ability achieve our maximum-employment goal,” Bostic said Tuesday at the start of the latest iteration of the Fed’s Racism and the Economy series, this one focused on the criminal justice system.

Bostic and other Fed officials on Tuesday reiterated several key points: 1) The United States has incarceration rates that greatly exceed those of other developed countries; 2) mass incarceration disproportionately targets Black and Latino Americans; and 3) as a result, we are, as Bostic put it, "exacerbating race-based employment, income and wealth disparities, which can limit economic mobility and resilience and ultimately constrain labor markets and compromise the performance of the overall economy.” The Sentencing Project estimates that “Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Latinos are 2.5 times as likely. For Black men in their thirties, about 1 in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day.”

The system harms not only those who have been incarcerated (e.g., resulting in higher unemployment rates) but all Americans. The economy would be stronger, growth higher and wealth larger if these Americans were employed and paying taxes. This perfectly exemplifies the need to root out structural racism, not simply because of those it targets but for the betterment of the country as a whole.

Over-incarceration may also exacerbate crime. Research has found that once someone is incarcerated, the likelihood of future criminal activity actually increases. To pick just one study, Michael-Mueller Smith of the University of Michigan found in 2015: “The empirical results indicate that incarceration generates net increases in the frequency and severity of recidivism, worsens labor market outcomes, and strengthens dependence on public assistance.” Failure to address the difficulty of reintegration into society for those who have paid their debt to society has translated to higher rates of unemployment among this population, which raises the chances of recidivism.

It is for this reason that the Biden administration has made reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals one of five main pillars of its anti-crime initiative. In a fact sheet for its crime-fighting agenda, the White House explained, “Individuals who secure employment after release have much lower recidivism rates than those who do not. Good, stable jobs promote public safety.”

In a call on Tuesday with a small group of journalists, I asked Susan Rice, director of the White House’s domestic policy council, what precisely the administration was going to do about the problem and whether it planned executive action to “ban the box” (eliminate a requirement for job applicants to disclose arrests and convictions until a conditional offer is made). She became animated and rattled off a list of efforts, including the Labor Department’s $85 million program to connect formerly incarcerated people with quality jobs; the Office of Personnel Management’s study to see whether formerly incarcerated people can be hired for so-called Schedule A temporary jobs in the federal government; OPM’s upcoming regulations to ban the box for all federal employers and contractors; credits for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people; and housing vouchers (to reduce homelessness among those released from prison).

One idea Rice did not mention was the potential for mass clemency or pardon for those incarcerated for marijuana use. Given that pot is now a legal, multibillion-dollar industry in much of the country, many Americans would agree it is absurd to continue detention and perpetuate the negative consequences of incarceration, especially for Black inmates. A study from the American Civil Liberties Union reports: “In 2018, there were almost 700,000 marijuana arrests, which accounted for more than 43% of all drug arrests. In fact, in 2018, police made more marijuana arrests than for all violent crimes combined, according to the FBI. ... On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.”

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Frankly, it should be a no-brainer to release those incarcerated for marijuana and expunge their convictions. It would be good for the economy, for public safety and for the cause of racial justice.