The United States today is home to two huge but essentially invisible populations.
The first of these invisible tribes — illegal immigrants — at least has attracted more than passing comment in politics. By contrast, America’s second invisible caste is almost never mentioned. Yet this group is far larger than the unauthorized immigrant population, and it is made up almost entirely of US citizens.
I refer to our vast underground army of released felons — adult men and women convicted of serious criminal offenses for which they have been punished with prison time or probation, and who now form part of the general population.
Only a tiny fraction of Americans who have been convicted of a felony are incarcerated. Perhaps 90 percent of all sentenced felons are out of confinement and living more or less among us.
How can that be? To begin: Few felons are sent away for life. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average time that imprisoned first offenders serve in state penitentiaries is just more than two years. More than 600,000 convicts are released from prison every year, and despite high rates of recidivism, many don’t return.
In addition, many convicted felons are never confined in the first place; instead, they undergo “community supervision” (such as probation). Taken together, correctional release, parole and probation guarantee a steady annual flow of convicted felons into society.
What sort of totals are we talking about? Curiously, there seem to be no official estimates. Some researchers, however, have attempted to determine the approximate dimensions of this invisible population — and their findings may astonish.
In two studies on the demography of what they call our “criminal class,” professors Christopher Uggen, Melissa Thompson and five colleagues estimate that the cohort of incarcerated and released felons in the United States had reached nearly 20 million by 2010 — four times larger, in their estimate, than just 30 years earlier.
If this estimate is even roughly accurate, and if the United States’ total felon population has continued to grow at more or less the same tempo the researchers cited for 2004 to 2010, we would expect the number of convicted felons to surpass 23 million people this year. That would be roughly twice as high as the number of illegal immigrants in the country.
And since the combined US jail and prison population is about 2.2 million (including some non-felons sentenced to jail or awaiting trial there), these figures would suggest the number of non-institutionalized Americans with a felony conviction will almost certainly exceed 20 million by the end of the year.
Yet to judge by the data our democracy collects, the circumstances of this ex-con population are a matter of almost complete indifference to the rest of us.
These individuals show up only in our statistics on crime and punishment — in other words, when they run afoul of the criminal-justice system.
We don’t know how many children they have, their marital status, who they live with, their housing situations. We don’t know their mortality rates or life expectancy, their disease and disability profile, their mental-health status.
We don’t know their labor-force participation rates, unemployment rates, jobs by sector or wages. Apart from broad generalities, we know roughly nothing about their education patterns, skills or training.
The irony here is not that felons who have paid their debt to society have need of a largely indifferent public; it’s that this same public needs them, too. We need them to succeed: as fathers and mothers, as breadwinners, as citizens — as people who make the most of a second chance. Our society can’t hope to flourish with 20 million modern-day outcasts in our midst.
Given its sheer scale, the task of reintegrating reformed felons has never been more important than it is today. But thanks to officialdom’s statistical neglect, we haven’t a clue about how well this task is working. And we can’t gather evidence to learn what we could do to make “re-entry” work better either.
© 2016, The Washington Post