Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

The Long Arm of the Law: The Concentration of Incarceration in Families in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

The Long Arm of the Law: The Concentration of Incarceration in Families in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The dramatic increase in the American imprisonment rate since the early 1970s1 and the concentration of imprisonment among young minority men with low educational attainment living in the poorest neighborhoods2 has profoundly altered the life-course for marginalized men and their families. While imprisonment was once uncommon for even the most disadvantaged men, it is now a common event for such men, with upwards of 70 percent of African American men who did not finish high school expected to experience imprisonment by their early 30s.3 The dramatic risks of imprisonment also have important implications for children since many of the men who cycle through the prison system are also fathers.4 Indeed, estimates suggest that over half of all African American children bom in 1990 whose fathers dropped out of high school had their father imprisoned at some point between their birth and their 14th birthday.5 6

In light of the concentration of paternal imprisonment among the most marginalized children and the consequences of having ever been incarcerated for adult men's earnings, marital status,7 and health,8 researchers have become keenly interested in the consequences of mass imprisonment for childhood inequality. In that vein, most research has focused on the effects of paternal incarceration on individual children,9 finding that paternal incarceration is associated with a host of negative outcomes ranging from early childhood10 through adolescence" and even into adulthood.12 Research that tests for effects on inequality paints an even more negative picture, suggesting not only that mass imprisonment has dramatically increased racial disparities in children's levels of behavioral and mental health problems, as well as their risks of infant mortality and homelessness, but also that the effects of mass imprisonment on childhood inequality are substantially larger than its effects on inequality among adult men.1

Important as these contributions are, existing quantitative research on the consequences of mass imprisonment for family life is still limited because it almost never considers the broader concentration of incarceration in families. This oversight is stymying for two reasons. First, qualitative research on the families of incarcerated men shows that most families experiencing incarceration are experiencing the incarceration of not just one family member, but multiple family members.14 Second, new research suggests that family member incarceration, broadly defined, has implications for women's wellbeing.15 Taken together, these two bodies of research suggest that paternal incarceration and the incarceration of other family members likely significantly overlap and that this overlap has profound implications for family life.

In this article, we use data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) to fill this pressing gap in research on the consequences of mass imprisonment for family life in three stages. In the first stage, we show, consistent with other research in this area,16 that the families that experience paternal and maternal incarceration also experience many other disadvantages (unrelated to the criminal justice system) even prior to experiencing that event. In the second stage, we rely on a unique series of questions asking about family members' incarceration to show that families experiencing parental incarceration also experience significantly more incarceration in their broader family networks than children without incarcerated parents (although we also show high levels of family incarceration for these children). In the third stage, we use propensity score models, which allow us to compare families identical on all characteristics except parental incarceration, in order to further demonstrate that incarceration runs in families. The notion that incarceration, like crime, concentrates in particular families, social groups, and places is not new17- but the implications of such concentrations are much more consequential in an era of mass incarceration. …

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