Little is known about the experience of families affected by incarceration, yet current trends indicate that millions of children have a parent who is imprisoned. Using a conceptual framework that acknowledges the losses associated with a parent's incarceration, 56 caregivers visiting an incarcerated family member during children's visiting hours were interviewed. The interview gathered information about family, health, economics, and the legal aspects of the inmate's situation. Overall, families were at risk economically before incarceration, and the most vulnerable became even more financially strained afterward. Other problems believed to be created by incarceration included parenting strain, emotional stress, and concerns about children's loss of involvement with their incarcerated parent. Implications for family practice and policy are discussed.
Key Words: criminal justice, family relationships, harm reduction, incarceration, poverty.
The purpose of this study was to explore the implications of criminal sanction policies on the families of felony offenders. Specifically, we were interested in the social, health, and economic characteristics of parents and children visiting an imprisoned family member and how these factors are connected with incarceration. Upward incarceration trends have far-reaching effects on families and children, yet empirical documentation remains scant (Arditti & McClintock, 2001). Such documentation is crucial in grounding interventions and policy changes to address the needs of felony offenders and their families.
An Overreliance on Incarceration
A convergence of several legal and sociopolitical developments over the last 15 years has resulted in the application of harsh criminal sanctions for even nonviolent offenses (Hallinan, 2001; King & Mauer, 2002). A centerpiece of criminal sanction policy is the use of incarceration as punishment. Prison incarceration rates have risen sharply since 1990, and the resultant trends give the United States the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world (Austin & Irwin, 2001; Beck & Harrison, 2001). Department of Justice survey results indicate that more than 1 million nonviolent prisoners are incarcerated in the United States and that 87% of federal prisoners, 53% of state prisoners, and 74% of jail inmates were imprisoned for offenses that involved neither harm nor threat of harm to a victim (Irwin, Schiraldi, & Ziedenberg, 1999). Due in part to the large percentage of parents convicted of drug trafficking, incarcerated parents reported lengthy average sentences-more than 12 years in state prison and 10 years in federal prison (Mumola, 2000). Of particular concern are the millions of parents and spouses who are being imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, the majority of which involve illegal drugs, and the likelihood of their becoming estranged from their families given lengthy sentences. Indeed, there is considerable agreement among criminologists that drug control strategies account for most of the growth in the U.S. prison population, largely through the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders (Austin & Irwin; Duster, 1995; King & Mauer; Lynch & Sabol, 2000).
A key contributor to spiraling conviction and imprisonment rates includes the increased power prosecutors hold through plea bargaining and conspiracy laws, especially at the federal level (Arditti & McClintock, 2001). Perhaps the most significant factor fueling the growth in prison populations today, especially among minorities and women, involves the use of mandatory minimum sentencing (Bales & Dees, 1992; Tonry & Hatlestad, 1997). Mandatory minimums are fixed, often lengthy, sentences handed down to the court via the legislature and apply largely to non-violent drug offenders (Scalia, 2001). A variety of consequences have resulted from the use of mandatory minimums. For example, by reducing judicial discretion, mandatory sentencing limits the possibility that an offender's extenuating circumstances, such as his or her family situation, are considered by the court (Donzinger, 1996; Wright & Lewin, 1998). …