About this issue

Special Editors: Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, and Hedwig Lee

Volume 665

Publication Date: May 2016

Crime and Policing, Marriage and Family

More than 30 years after President Reagan declared a war on drugs and more than 20 years after President Clinton declared a war on lawlessness, President Obama is describing our criminal justice system as broken—plagued by overaggressive policing, prison overcrowding, and abominable conditions for inmates. He has also characterized the criminal justice system as an “aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and communities and ultimately on our nation.” The president is joined in this view by a broad and increasingly bipartisan group of Americans interested in finding ways to reform criminal justice in America.

A critical concern about expansion of the U.S. criminal justice system over the last four decades has been the extent to which it negatively affects children and families. We know that family effects are profound, complex and variable, often in disconcerting ways: “low-level” and “nonviolent” offenders, for example, can sometimes be a source of disarray and violence in their own families, and “violent” and “serious” offenders are sometimes stalwart spouses and parents. This volume of The ANNALS sheds light on the prospects and perils of criminal justice reform for family life, and provides guidance to policy and research.

Representative findings from this collection of research:

  • We have long known that the children of incarcerated fathers suffer as a result of their fathers’ time behind bars (e.g., higher delinquency, worse performance in school), but research here shows that the nature and duration of fathers’ contact with the criminal justice system also influences child outcomes.
  • The negative impacts of paternal incarceration on children are significant regardless of the type of facility in which the father is locked up (county jails or state prisons).
  • Are petty offenders or serious criminals worse for families? Using criminal offense categories to identify “harmful” or “helpful” fathers is extremely problematic. For example, “low risk” and “nonviolent drug offender” are not categories that map well to family outcomes, and a small group of children even benefits from paternal incarceration.
  • Transitions into and out of jail or prison are disruptive to romantic partnerships—and to family life more broadly. Notably, incarceration doesn’t much affect a couple’s decision to live together, but it does reduce the likelihood that couples will marry.
  • Persistent, low-level criminal involvement—a constant churn of routine, brief jail stays and community supervision through probation and parole—can undermine family stability and present significant financial and emotional hardship for offenders’ families.
  • Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap between families that experience incarceration and families involved with Child Protective Services (CPS)—this interplay has been notable in previous research on maternal incarceration. Data from Wisconsin show some of the ways in which that overlap plays out. For example, incarcerated young adults (ages 18 to 21) are very likely to have experienced CPS between the ages of 15 and 16; and 28 percent of CPS-involved children in Milwaukee County have a parent in jail or prison.
  • Are there alternatives to incarceration that do less harm to families? Perhaps. One intriguing study from Denmark shows that when the Danish government provided those convicted of drunk driving an alternative to jail (group therapy plus use of the drug Antabus), the program was responsible for more stability in romantic partnerships. Studies like this suggest that we may be able to design punishment that is both family-friendly and effective in reducing crime, therefore saving taxpayers money.
  • The burden that families bear for criminal justice involvement might not even stem from crime. Online criminal history websites (e.g. www.mugshots.com) include many arrestees who are never actually charged or convicted of a crime. Because these sites are public, though, the stigma of the digital trail often leads family members to self select out of work that contributes to child well-being, like volunteering at their child’s school.

The broad lessons from this investigation of how criminal justice involvement affects families:

  1. We have very good evidence that the average effect of incarceration is to cause families harm (e.g., children’s education outcomes and criminality). Unfortunately, the evidence is not easily translated into actionable policy. Many of the contributions in this volume attempt to shed light on where, exactly, the “average harmful effect” on families comes from, but the sources of harm to children, for example, do not readily align with categories of inmates for whom politicians might consider leniency or alternative treatment.
  2. This research also suggests that the effect of incarceration on families is unlikely to change through current policy proposals either because many categories of the convicted (notably, “violent offenders”) are excluded from potential reforms, or because proposals often don’t involve reducing the incarcerated population (for example, shifting prisoners from state prisons to county jails in many California counties).
  3. We are pessimistic that sound, evidence-based guidance for policy can be quickly or easily produced without major investments in data infrastructure and research. For example, very few of the data sources used to examine the well-being of families include information on incarceration, and those that do are extraordinarily limited in scope.  Further, current data make it difficult for research to adequately describe who is actually a low-level offender, let alone characterize the influence of their incarceration on spouses, partners, and children.

This volume shows that the consequences of incarceration for families is quite nuanced, but it is important to remember that poor communities of color and especially the women living in them are disproportionately bearing the family burden of mass incarceration. As such, even though this volume focuses on a host of practical impediments to public policy, the disproportionate consequences of mass incarceration for African American families make a compelling case for why these issues should not be ignored.

Finally, from the perspective of researchers interested in the effects of criminal justice contact on families, it’s worth noting that even a short jail sentence can be enormously destabilizing for inmates and their families. Time talking about reform might be well spent re-thinking not only how we punish but why we do so. And if a goal of reform is the protection of all families, we need to think critically about how we rehabilitate. Such a debate is worth having, and it should be informed by high quality and thoughtful research that shows the way to more humane and just outcomes for the imprisoned and for their families.

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