When you unpack mass incarceration to reveal how it is ravaging families and entire communities, it quickly becomes clear that this is a levee issue, and that the levee is crumbling fast.

There is a lot in the news these days about the U.S. criminal justice system, from protests of ‘stop and frisk’ policies to a much discussed new study from The American Civil Liberties Union that found that while marijuana use between blacks and whites is about even, blacks were almost four times more likely to get arrested for possession in 2010. Despite the volume of information and chatter out there, the extraordinary burden that this places on us as a nation is not often clearly articulated.

In 2012, Living Cities began asking ourselves and our problem solving network—from our 22 member institutions, to our grantees, partners, and other influential organizations, practitioners and innovators—what the big ‘levee issues’ of our time are. The question was originally posed by Ronn Richard, President & CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, at a gathering of our Board of Directors: “If the nation had identified and addressed the weaknesses of the levees in New Orleans before they broke, we wouldn’t be working so hard for the past six years to address the fallout from their failure.” We committed ourselves to working to identify those issues that unless addressed would leave all of our efforts to create opportunities for low- income people and improve the cities where they live ‘under water’.

Today, the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, both on a per capita basis and in terms of total prison population. More than 500,000 of the 2.3 million people in America’s prisons are behind bars for nonviolent drug offences. And, this reality disproportionately affects communities of color and low- income people. Sixty five out of every hundred men of color in America face incarceration during their lifetimes. On their own, these are sobering statistics. When you unpack them to reveal how mass incarceration is ravaging families and entire communities, it quickly becomes clear that this is a levee issue, and that the levee is crumbling fast.

Nonviolent Offenses

500,000+ More than 500,000 of the 2.3 million people in America’s prisons are behind bars for nonviolent drug offences.

While social change organizations like ours are working to increase access to quality education and connect people to economic opportunities that are pathways out of poverty, incarceration can impede and sometimes reverse the trajectory of a low- income person. A recent Pew report shows that ex-offenders get stuck in the lowest earnings bracket and see annual earnings reduced by 40 percent. Further, a criminal record, even for nonviolent offenders, restricts access to opportunities such as jobs, education, housing, social services, and even the right to vote. In this way, boys and men of color are being excluded from economic, social, and political life in shocking numbers. These issues are compounded when you consider the residual impact that incarceration has on children. These children have higher rates of social-emotional issues, higher dropout rates, and are more likely to become offenders themselves. This trend is a huge contributor to multi-generational poverty. In short, much of the work that is being done to address inequality and reduce poverty will never reach these families because even people with minor convictions, such as for marijuana possession, must check a box on applications for jobs, student loans, and food stamps that will in many cases render them ineligible.

Mass incarceration is a levee issue because it leaves too many low-income people and their families, under water. It is a levee issue because failure to address it will have severe implications for the social and economic future of our country. Living Cities has joined a philanthropic alliance dedicated to addressing this and other problems facing boys and men of color. And, next week, our Admiral Center is bringing together artists and cultural leaders to discuss the issues at a strategic convening in New York. Stay tuned for ideas and insights from this early exploration.