Sunday, July 5, 2009

Generation Incarceration

Parents in Prison = Kids in Trouble:

The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood.

“Parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel, and distinctly American, childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who is studying what some now call the “incarceration generation.”
I would call these kids collateral damage in the War on Drugs.

The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood.

“Parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel, and distinctly American, childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who is studying what some now call the “incarceration generation.”

Among 5-year-old urban boys, 49 percent of those who had a father incarcerated within the previous 30 months exhibited physically aggressive behaviors like hitting others or destroying objects, compared with 38 percent of those in otherwise similar circumstances who did not have a father imprisoned, Dr. Wildeman found.

While most attention has been placed on physical aggression, a study by Sara Wakefield, a sociologist following children in Chicago, found that having a parent imprisoned was a mental-health tipping point for some. Thus, while 28 percent of the children in her study over all experienced feelings of social isolation, depression or anxiety at levels that would warrant clinical evaluation or treatment, about 35 percent of those who had an incarcerated parent did.
On the one hand, none of the data they discuss above or in the article is very new. We've known for quite awhile (and have discussed in both 3070 juvenile delinquency and 3150 crime and punishment) the devastating impact having a parent in prison has on a child. In other areas of the literature, these are known as the "invisible punishments."

But what is so striking about the article and the latest research is the depth and scope of damage to this next generation: literally millions of kids facing obstacles and hardships caused by no fault of their own. What's that old line, about punishing sons for the sins of the father?

However, the architects and supporters of the drug war and mandatory-minimum mania are not quite ready to take the heat.
Heather Mac Donald, a legal expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group, agreed that everything possible should be done to help the children of people who were incarcerated. But Ms. Mac Donald said that it was hard to distinguish the effects of having a parent in prison from those of having a parent who is a criminal, and that any evaluation of tough sentencing policies, which she supports, had to weigh the benefits for the larger community. “A large portion of fathers were imprisoned on violence or drug-trafficking charges,” she said. “What would be the effects on other children in the neighborhood if those men are out there?”
The old victimization cost argument: by putting X number of criminals in prison, we save Y in potential victimization costs. While it's a popular argument, it is nonetheless speculative, at best. We can guess how many crimes these people may have committed, but we can never know for sure. Meanwhile, we can measure the strong correlations between having a parent in prison and a child dropping out of school, engaging in delinquency, the effects of poverty, mental illness, etc.

But at the end of the day, beating up on "predators" in the criminal justice system remains politically popular. And the common reaction to articles and data like this will more than likely remain, "so don't go out and commit crimes," followed by, "and if their their kids follow in their footsteps, we'll put them in prison too."

Kind of a nice, feel good story for the 4th of July, isn't it?

UPDATE: For a more global perspective, check out this post at GSB.

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