Can giving people cash keep them from going back to prison?


Illustration of a stack of hundred dollar bills.
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A bold new experiment out of Florida: guaranteed income for the formerly incarcerated.

The last few years have seen significant victories for the guaranteed income movement — the push to simply give people cash with no strings attached. Pilot programs in places ranging from Stockton, California, to southwestern Kenya have been launched in recent years, and the research literature on the positive effects of guaranteed income is growing.

A new pilot program is now pushing guaranteed income into a new frontier by focusing on a potentially controversial constituency: formerly incarcerated people. The outcome of the program may help define the political bounds of just giving people money.

Just Income GNV — a guaranteed income project by Community Spring, an organization dedicated to dismantling structural poverty and spurring economic mobility — last month launched a guaranteed income experiment for people who were formerly incarcerated in Alachua County, Florida. In January, the first half of participants in the program received $1,000 each. Over the next 11 months, they will receive $600 each per month as an unconditional cash transfer, which means recipients can spend it however they choose.

Formerly incarcerated people disproportionately face major financial hardship, including trouble finding jobs and housing. This cash can be used to find or keep stable housing, pay fines and fees to avoid reincarceration, invest in education, or anything people need to assist in reentry.

Murray, one of the program’s recipients, spoke with me about receiving the first payment. (Vox is withholding his last name to protect his privacy.) “I already planned when it went through I was going to pay these restitutions, things that would’ve took me months and months to pay,” he said. “I got most of it paid in one walk.” He was also able to get a mobile scooter chair to assist in mobility around town, buy new socks, and help his nephew with gas money.

This program will reach 115 randomly selected people in two cohorts; the first just received money, while applications for the second round will be open to recently incarcerated Alachua County residents until February 9.

The Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania and Lucius Couloute, a sociologist at Suffolk University in Boston focusing on criminal justice, are partnering with Just Income and studying the cash transfer’s effects on financial stability, housing, recidivism and reincarceration, dignity, hopefulness, and civic participation.

The Florida experiment could be an important test of the impact guaranteed income could have for some of the most vulnerable members of society at a moment when the idea is picking up momentum. “If this can work for folks who are really at the lowest point of our social and economic hierarchy, then I think the implications are going to be both broad and specific,” Couloute told me. “It’ll pertain to other folks with criminal records across the country and also to anyone who is struggling with issues of economic stability and social disadvantage.”

The burden of incarceration

Incarceration is expensive for the state, and it hurts people, families, and communities. In 2020, it cost taxpayers an average of over $35,000 to incarcerate someone in a federal facility; in Florida state prisons, the cost was about $28,000.

The toll of incarceration is considerable. The effects of prison don’t end when the incarcerated are released. Many employers are hesitant to hire formerly incarcerated people, who face homelessness at almost 10 times the average rate. People who are incarcerated are disproportionately low-income and Black, and they face additional fines and financial penalties after release, such as probation fees, lingering court fees, mandatory therapy, ankle monitoring, and drug testing. Inability to pay these can lead to reincarceration.

In Florida, where 176,000 people out of a population of almost 22 million are incarcerated, 20 percent of probation violations are rooted in lack of money, according to Kevin Scott, Just Income GNV’s manager. People may face choices between buying food and paying probation fees to avoid getting sent back to jail. “The crime is your bank account,” he told me. “You have been labeled — you are just too poor to be free.”

Incarceration also affects families and communities. “People coming out of prison are mothers or fathers, they have folks who depend on them,” says Couloute, the Suffolk University researcher leading the study’s qualitative research. “They’re part of households where they want to contribute, but maybe they can’t.”

Researchers estimate that every dollar of direct jail and prison costs generates an additional $10 in social costs. That amounts to over $500 billion annually, which is largely shouldered by families, children, and community members. Incarceration economically damages families for years after a person is released and has negative repercussions for child and family mental health.

How guaranteed income can help

While this is the first experiment in giving unconditional cash transfers to formerly incarcerated people, numerous studies in the US and elsewhere have shown how guaranteed income can benefit vulnerable members of society.

Stockton, California, gave 125 people in neighborhoods at or below the median income $500 per month, which led to mental health improvements and increased likelihood of finding a job. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Casino Dividend in North Carolina gives all tribal members a cut of gambling revenue that amounts to $4,000 to $6,000 per year; research has seen improvements in mental health and education and decreases in crime and addiction. Other studies around the world have shown benefits to health and food security, and reduction in crime.

Studies consistently show that recipients aren’t more likely to spend money on alcohol and drugs (as some have feared) — in fact, spending on “temptation goods” decreases in many cases. People also didn’t stop working in the vast majority of guaranteed income experiments (though there have been studies that tilted in the other direction).

The Florida experiment is especially intriguing because it will chart how guaranteed income can affect outcomes for a group that’s especially at risk of financial calamity.

A similar study shows promising results: Vancouver gave people experiencing homelessness $7,500 and found recipients moved into stable housing faster and were able to save money. The program was designed by formerly incarcerated people, and the team decided that the first month out of prison is particularly important because of the search for housing and a job, which is why it starts with an initial higher payment of $1,000 and then goes down to $600 in the following months. (Durham, North Carolina, is also running a similar guaranteed income pilot for formerly incarcerated people starting this March.)

There are also broader benefits of guaranteed income for families, communities, and society. A guaranteed income experiment in Kenya found benefits to the entire local economy as people spent money on neighboring businesses. While Alachua County in Florida is not Siaya County, Kenya, the researchers are hopeful that guaranteed income can help mitigate the negative effects incarceration has on communities.

Trying to stop the factors leading to reincarceration would be good for society. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, an estimated 68 percent of people released from prison are rearrested within three years. A guaranteed income that allows formerly incarcerated people to get past the basic hurdles of reentry could reduce recidivism, both through directly allowing people to pay fines and fees and general crime reduction that happens when people can meet their basic needs.

“I think the question is,” says Couloute, “do we all deserve safer communities? If the answer is yes, then that means we want to do everything we can to ensure people with felony records live crime-free lives and don’t recidivate. If we can help folks leave our criminal justice system and get jobs, pay taxes, and become great tenants and homeowners, and so on and so forth, that only contributes to our society rather than detracting from it.”

These are lofty goals, and we won’t know the effects of this program for another couple of years. Scott hopes that this pilot can draw attention to the linkages between incarceration and poverty while Couloute discussed potential wide-ranging implications for anyone struggling with economic stability and social disadvantage.

The benefits are most obviously targeted at the 115 recipients. But if the results pan out, this experiment could bolster the case for a broader policy shift.