Problems With Mass Incarceration: Poverty and Marginalization

The poor are being targeted

Saras Agrawal
7 min readAug 1, 2021

The U.S. alone has less than 5% of the global population, but it houses about 22% of the world’s prisoners. [1] The U.S. prison houses about 2.12 million prisoners, of those, 59% are minorities, in comparison to the only 26% in the entire United States population that are minorities [2]. Mass incarceration has many root flaws, like the lack of support to bring inmates back into society post release, leading to their re-arrest. Or the lack of proper funding in prisons, and the use of the quota systems. But, let’s talk about the marginalization of economically unempowered communities.

On average, minorities make up a majority of people under the poverty line (annual income of US$12,760). On average 23% of African American people live under the line, along with 25% of Native Americans and 19% of Latinxs.

[3] Now, there are 2 main causes in which marginalized run communities may struggle financially:

Lack of Education

Most minority communities, and families under the poverty line cannot afford any sort of higher education for their children, and a majority of these families make income in service jobs that do not need diplomas, in family run businesses, or labor jobs. Kids in poverty are less likely to be able to focus on their education, and have a harder time adjusting to teaching. This means they fall behind. In fact, by the fourth grade, these kids are on average, 2 years behind in grade knowledge, and by grade 12, 4 years behind. As well, in average low incomes kids age 16–24 are 7 times more likely to drop out from school in order to join the workforce or help their families in comparison to higher income families. [4] Without any sort of education, the highest income jobs become out of reach for generations of young people. Contributing to the poverty cycle.

Lack of Opportunity

Like we discussed in the previous section, many people in low-income families cannot afford to get to college or have any sort of educational opportunities. What’s more is that because of a lack of financial capital, more minority business fail than not. According to NBC News, 8/10 of black owned businesses fail within the first 18 months* [5]

*not necessarily under the poverty line

These businesses struggle due to the fact that they have less investment capital, and cannot stay afloat without huge amounts of cashflow, that sometimes do not exist in low-income communities. What’s more is that, white businesses usually make more sales, and have higher profits on those sales.[6]

How Do These factors Affect Incarceration?


Homeless people are the most susceptible to unneeded arrest due to bans on sleeping, sitting, or lying down in public; sleeping in your vehicle; begging; and loitering. Some cities (about 9%) have even banned sharing food. [7]. With the regular use of these necessary practices by the homeless, being homeless makes a person 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than the average person.[8][9]In the US, 143,000 homeless people are being arrested for homelessness.[10]

Substance Abuse

In low-income communities, as well as for those who are homeless, substance abuse is rampant. In fact The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that nearly 40 percent of homeless Americans struggle with alcohol addiction and over 25 percent struggle with some other kind of substance use disorder. [11] In low-income communities, drug use is not uncommon either, as it can be sold for high profits, even in places where money does not come by easy. This addiction is an easy way for police to reach their quotas, and less than 20% of inmates with drug abuse or dependence receive formal treatment in prison. [12]

Easy Targeting of Margenilized Communities

Because of lack of economic empowerment, and higher crime rates, many low-income communities are marginalized by the police, and do not trust police forces. This distrust between the law and people, can result in police brutality towards innocent victims, or higher crime rates from these communities, as their distrust for the police grows. This feeling of lack of security, can lead to gangs, and violence.

Pre-Trial Incarceration, And High Bails

There are about 600,000 people across the United States, being detained in local jails. A majority of these, about 70%, are pretrial. [13]These people have not been tried for the crime they may or may not have committed, but by law are still innocent. So what about innocent until proven guilty? This only applies to those who can pay the bails (which range from 5 thousand, to upwards of 20,000). As discussed previously, those with low to no income (minority/marginalized suspects who are more targeted) make little to no income, and therefore cannot post bail, and maybe detained in a pretrial detention centre up to 6 months. [14]

What Needs to Change?

The Culture

In marginalized communities this hate towards the system needs to be dismantled. More systems to create positive relations between youth in these communities and police need to be set in place. As well, creating role models for youth will be the only way for these kids to want to be more than a labor worker, a server, or a criminal.


Creating better education opportunities, programs and scholarships for kids in marginalized communities can keep them away from crime, and out of the poverty cycle. Being able to make money off skills, knowledge or just a high school diploma, drastically reduces the need for the young to engage in illegal crimes, like stealing, fraud, and assault. [15]

Economic Empowerment

There needs to be more emphasis on empowering the people that are being targeted in a flawed policing system, vs just defunding the entire system. The idea that marginalized do not have more crime than economically empowered, more ‘accepted’ communities is utterly untrue. [16] This crime does exist, but it is caused by low opportunity and not many other options for many. By empowering low-income communities, we can bring many marginalized groups out of situations where crime is the first option.

Racial Bias

Racial bias in cops must also change. While statistically there is more concentration of crime in low-income communities, associating crime with race is utterly wrong. What’s more, if the police continue to target racial groups or socioeconomic groups, they face only more distrust and retaliation.


While the police system and policing does have flaws, we need to focus our attention on those who are being targeted by the police, and rewrite stereotypes that exist. Fixing the mass incarceration problem will not be a straight forward solution but layers of dismantling, rebuilding, and understanding.

Before you go

I’m Saras, an aspiring innovator, who loves to explore and learn. Student at The Knowledge Society. Science & Tech & Ethics & Philosophy. I also post semi-weekly. Ish. Consider subscribing?


[1]Lee, Michelle. “Does the United States Really Have 5 Percent of the World’s Population and One Quarter of the World’s Prisoners?” Washington Post, The Washington Post, 30 Apr. 2015,

[2] Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity. Briefing by Leah Sakala. May 28, 2014. Prison Policy Initiative. Figures calculated with US Census 2010 SF-1 table P42 and the PCT20 table series.

[3]Sauter, Michael Usa B. Today. “Faces of Poverty: What Racial, Social Groups Are More Likely to Experience It?” WLST, Gannet Satellite Information Network, 10 Oct. 2018,

[4] KewalRamani, Angelina, Jennifer Laird, Nicole Ifill, and Chris Chapman. “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2009.” National Center for Educational Statics.,

[5]Green, Dymond Cnbc. “Why Black-Owned Businesses Are Struggling to Stay Afloat.” NBC News, NBC News, 9 Feb. 2021,,within%20the%20first%2018%20months.

[6]Fairlie, Robert W., and Alicia M. Robb. “Why Are Black‐Owned Businesses Less Successful than White‐Owned Businesses? The Role of Families, Inheritances, and Business Human Capital.” Journal of Labor Economics, vol. 25, no. 2, 2007, pp. 289–323. Crossref, doi:10.1086/510763.

[7]Hayes, Tara O’Neill, and Tara O’Neill Hayes. “Incarceration and Poverty in the United States.” AAF, 2 July 2020,

[8]No Safe Place The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities:

[9]Return to Nowhere: The Revolving Door Between Incarceration and Homelessness:


[11]Nicosia, Dominic. “The Relationship between Addiction and Poverty.” Recovery Unplugged, Recovery Unplugged, 20 Jan. 2020,

[12]Chandler, Redonna K., et al. “Treating Drug Abuse and Addiction in the Criminal Justice System.” JAMA, vol. 301, no. 2, 2009, p. 183. Crossref, doi:10.1001/jama.2008.976.

[13]“Detaining the Poor.” Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative, Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

[14] Centre for Human Rights, Geneva: Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch, Vienna. Professional Training Series №3: Human Rights and Pre-trial Detention: A Handbook of International Standards relating to Pre-trial Detention. United Nations, New York and Geneva, 1994. Footnote 44.

[15] Education and Crime:

[16] Comen, Samuel Usa Stebbins And Evan Today. “Safe Cities: California, Texas Are Home to Many of Towns with Lower Violent Crime Rates.” WLST, WLST, 27 Oct. 2019,

[17]Initiative, Prison Policy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020.” Prison Policy Initiative, Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.



Saras Agrawal

Currently working in the BCI startup space. Learning, Exploring, Creating, Teaching.