New Study Explores Incarceration and the Separation of Children from Fathers

December 28, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Incarceration. It’s not something that shows up in this blog very often, but, as this article suggests, it probably should (Wall Street Journal, 12/25/14).

The WSJ article is by former Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin and Nicholas Turner who’s president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice. The article was spurred by this new study by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council. The study is entitled “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Causes and Consequences.” From my layperson’s perspective, it’s a must-read study that questions many of our assumptions about incarceration and its effects on society.

Of course being dedicated to keeping both parents in the lives of their children, what got my attention was the information on the effects of incarceration on children. I write a lot about how family courts and laws act to separate children from their parents, mostly their fathers, but society has other ways of accomplishing that nefarious end. Incarceration is one of them. A child with a parent in prison is a child who’s effectively without that parent. The parent can’t support the child, read to the child, cuddle the child, sooth fears or injuries. The parent-child relationship is reduced to an occasional visit in a forbidding and hostile environment.


The costs of incarceration extend across generations. Nearly three million American children have a parent in prison or jail. Growing up with an incarcerated parent can harm childhood development. Research by Pew shows that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are nearly six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school.

And those social deficits tend to be self-perpetuating.

Incarceration therefore helps perpetuate the cycle of family poverty and increases the potential for next generation criminal activity. A 2009 study by two Villanova sociologists found that, from 1980 to 2004, the official poverty rate would have fallen by more than 10% had it not been for our nation’s incarceration policies.

The father who goes to prison is also the father who, when he’s released, is woefully disadvantaged when he tries to put his life back together.

For the more than 600,000 people who leave prison and re-enter society every year, finding employment can be a severe challenge. Prison time carries a social stigma, which makes finding any job, let alone a good job, all too difficult. The Labor Department doesn’t track the unemployment rate for people with prison records.

But a 2006 study by the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment found that up to 60% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after release, with their unemployment rates rising to above 65% during the 2008-09 recession, according to a study in the Journal of Correctional Education. And even when they find employment, people who have been incarcerated earn 40% less than people of similar circumstances who have never been imprisoned, according to a study by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Faced with obstacles to gainful employment, it’s no surprise that 43% of people released from prison end up back behind bars within three years, according to a recent Pew study on recidivism.

The children who would otherwise depend on those (almost exclusively) men find they cannot. In short, incarceration creates yet more fatherless, and in some cases motherless, children.

Of course no one would argue that adults who commit criminal offenses should be spared punishment, whether or not they have children. (Actually, we do occasionally see that argument made for shielding mothers from the consequences of their criminal behavior, but so far they’re not taken seriously.) But the fact is that, here in the United States, we incarcerate more and for longer periods than does any country in Western Europe or Scandinavia.

The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies, according to a groundbreaking, 464-page report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences. America puts people in prison for crimes that other nations don’t, mostly minor drug offenses, and keeps them in prison much longer. Yet these long sentences have had at best a marginal impact on crime reduction.

But this tendency toward harsh punishment is far from a random phenomenon. On the contrary, it’s frankly sexist. As Professor Sonja Starr revealed in her 2012 study that’s the best and most comprehensive ever done, the criminal justice system discriminates against men and boys at every point between the commission of a crime all the way through incarceration and release. Males are more likely than females to be arrested, charged, denied bail and convicted than are women. Meanwhile, the charges against them are more severe, there’s less likely to be a plea bargain offered and if one is, it’s harsher. Punishment for men is harsher than for women both in custodial cases and those in which the punishment is solely monetary. All of that is true when the usual variables such as severity of the crime, criminal record, age of the perpetrator, etc. are held constant.

And lets’ not forget that, while the article only deals with incarcerated individuals, punishment by our system of criminal justice scarcely stops when a prisoner is released. More often than not, he’s still subjected to restrictions on his movements, monitoring by parole officers and the like. And of course he has a criminal record that limits his ability to find and keep work and where he can live. Depending on the nature of his offense, whole segments of the employment market may bear a “Do Not Enter” sign directed at him. And in many states, he can’t vote.

The upshot is that, far more than mothers, fathers are likely to be separated from their children by the criminal justice system. It’s yet another way in which we find it appropriate to deprive children of their fathers. And then we wonder why boys and young men reach “adulthood” without the least notion of how to behave as a man.

Now, it’s a fair argument that we don’t want children to be brought up by murderers and other violent felons. In many cases that’s true. As with any adult, we need to look carefully to determine whether he/she can be a fit parent. But vast numbers of incarcerated people went inside, not because of anything that would render them unfit as parents. They kited one too many checks, held a gram too much marijuana, stole too fancy a car. None of that is laudable behavior, but equally, none of that should be considered sufficient to declare a parent unfit to care for a child.

Likewise, children constitute one of our most civilizing effects on adults. Put simply, adults with children to care for tend to behave more responsibly than those without. So society has an interest in keeping adults connected to children rather than separating the two. Every adult who leaves prison should be evaluated to see if he/she is capable of caring for a child, should there be one. If they are, they should be gradually reintegrated into the child’s life. Everyone will be better off if that happens.

Thanks to Ron for the heads-up and thanks to Rubin and Turner for their valuable article.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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