A common, and emotionally potent, criticism of incarceration in the United States is that it harms children by taking parents and siblings—mostly fathers and brothers, since men account for more than 90 percent of prisoners—out of their homes, depriving families of caregivers, role models, and breadwinners. “More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States,” writes Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, in an essay published by the Brennan Center for Justice. “That’s 2.3 million families that have been torn apart.” In that same Brennan Center compendium, Van Jones, cofounder of the #Cut50 initiative to reduce the incarcerated population by half, makes similar claims. In addition to “perpetuating the ugly legacy of racism,” argues Jones, imprisonment is “tearing families apart.”
Many Democratic Party presidential candidates echo these arguments. In her criminal-justice reform plan, Senator Elizabeth Warren laments that “one in ten Black children has an incarcerated parent.” Joe Biden suggests allowing “nonviolent offenders who are primary care providers for their children to serve their sentences through in-home monitoring.” These proposals are intended to address the problem that “children with incarcerated parents tend to do worse in school, experience anxiety and depression, and develop behavioral issues,” as Bernie Sanders puts it.
Some on the right have made similar arguments. In a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation, Senator Mike Lee observed that “a majority of prisoners are also parents—most of whom lived with their minor children before they were arrested or incarcerated.” He found fault with a “penitentiary approach to punishment” that “severs the offenders’ ties to their family.”
In New York, the belief that incarceration is almost always a net negative for families—particularly children—may soon shape criminal-justice outcomes. A vocal member of the “reformer prosecutor” movement, Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez recently unveiled his Justice 2020 initiative, which reflects his belief that incarceration has “had the effect of destabilizing families.” Even some judges are buying in. On October 4, 2019, NYPD officers responded to an alert from the city’s ShotSpotter system, which reports shootings directly to police. Police say that they arrived at the shooting scene in time to observe 32-year-old Shakeil Chandler kicking a .357 Magnum revolver under a car; they arrested him for illegal weapons possession. Like so many of those charged with serious violent offenses, Chandler was no stranger to the criminal-justice system. According to the New York Post, he was a reputed member of the Crips and had served nearly a decade in prison for manslaughter involving a 2006 shooting in Queens, before getting paroled in 2014. Though aware of Chandler’s history, Bronx criminal court judge Jeanine Johnson released him without bail, citing a recommendation by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency and noting that he had “full custody of his child.”
Yet the contention that incarcerating an individual is, in most cases, harmful to his family—and especially to dependent children—relies on an assumption that these individuals are capable of being emotionally supportive guardians and reliable sources of economic stability. The evidentiary basis for this assumption is shaky. Considerable evidence suggests, to the contrary, that the struggles of children of such parents—whether in school or in other areas of their lives—have less to do with their parents being incarcerated than with the behavior that led to the incarceration.
Whether a parent’s presence in a child’s life is beneficial seems heavily dependent on whether that parent engages in high levels of “antisocial behavior.” By this, researchers mean generally failing to conform to social norms, being deceitful, acting impulsively and with reckless disregard for others, displaying high levels of irritability and aggressiveness, and often lacking remorse after misbehaving. The literature on the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior suggests that the presence of parents who engage in such behavior may be even worse for a child than the absence of a pro-social parent. “Fathers’ antisocial behaviors predicted growth in children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, with links stronger among resident-father families,” according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. These results, the study’s authors warned, “suggest caution in policies and programs which seek to universally increase marriage or father involvement without attention to fathers’ behaviors.”
This finding squares with earlier work led by Sara Jaffee, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of a paper published in the journal Child Development, which found that the “quality of a father’s involvement matters more than his mere presence” and that children who live with fathers who “engage in very high levels of antisocial behavior” will go on to behave “significantly worse” than “their peers whose fathers also engage in high levels of antisocial behavior but do not reside with their children.” Jaffee adds that the “advantages of growing up in a two-parent family may be negated when one or both parents are characterized by a history of antisocial behavior.”
For a vivid example of what this kind of behavior looks like, consider a recent—and highly public—case of domestic violence that went viral last summer. The incident took place at Toon Town, inside California’s Disneyland, and was captured on video. The video begins with a man in a red shirt arguing with and cursing at a woman standing next to another man while holding a stroller, in which two small children are strapped. The woman spits at the man in the red shirt, who then repeatedly hits her in the face before setting his sights on her male companion. The two men square up and briefly trade blows, each taking at least one break to strike each other’s female companions. At this point, the female companion of the red-shirted man begins fighting with the woman who had spat at him. Throughout the video, children can be seen and heard crying in the background.
At one point in the nearly four-minute ordeal, an older woman struggles out of her electric wheelchair, trying to get between the two younger women. She gets knocked to the ground and needs to be helped up. The older woman, it turns out, is the mother of the man in the red shirt. Upon learning that his female companion had (albeit inadvertently) knocked his mother to the ground, the red-shirted man, who had seemed to be calming down, now assaults his female companion—but not before repeatedly striking the woman with whom he was originally arguing, apparently his own sister. Only then did other patrons at last intervene.
The incident offered a disturbing glimpse into what children in antisocial environments see and hear—and what they might go on to learn. Exposure to highly antisocial parents increases the likelihood that a child will develop serious conduct problems, which, according to Jaffee and her coauthors, “are the strongest predictor of a range of adverse outcomes in adolescence and adulthood . . . including school dropout, teen childbearing, crime, and unemployment.” Such exposure seems to be criminogenic for children—that is, it increases their criminal behavior.
The question is whether there’s significant overlap between the kinds of men who engage in high levels of antisocial behavior and those who often find themselves behind bars. The answer appears to be a resounding yes. As Jaffee et al., observe, “high-antisocial fathers were significantly more likely to meet” the criterion for a clinical diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder. And ASPD, it turns out, has long been common among prison inmates. (It’s worth pointing out that the red-shirted man at Disneyland—Avery Robinson—has a “multistate criminal history,” as noted by a judge who denied Robinson’s request for a lower bail.)
According to a 2002 article in The Lancet, nearly half of just under 19,000 male prisoners surveyed across 12 countries had ASPD. That survey found that prisoners were “about ten times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than the general population,” and this estimate might understate the prevalence. A 2016 article in Translational Psychiatry noted that while only between 1 percent and 3 percent of the general public have ASPD, the disorder has a prevalence of “40–70 percent in prison populations.”
An interesting thread in the research on ASPD among prisoners is the prevalence of comorbidity with Substance Use Disorders (SUDs). A study published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry found that “offenders with ASPD are much more likely to have other types of mental illness,” including high rates of substance use. Moreover, offenders with ASPD and comorbid SUDs seem to have worse outcomes than offenders with only ASPD. A Spanish study suggests that inmates with both ASPD and an SUD exhibit a “tendency to carry out more aggressive crimes.” A 2008 study of patients making threats against others found that the “highest risks [for subsequent violence] were in substance misusers.” Another notes that psychiatric patients with “various personality disorders and comorbid substance abuse . . . represent a high risk group for violence within forensic psychiatric facilities, and repetitive violent behavior in the community.” What makes these findings so important is that drug offenders (especially users) have been such a keen focus of anti-incarceration reformers.
Given that exposure to highly antisocial fathers is detrimental for children and associated with a host of negative life outcomes, and that close to half of prisoners, if not more, have ASPD, isn’t it possible that incarceration sometimes could have a positive impact on families? Again, recent studies suggest that the answer could be yes.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom,” according to a new working paper, “parental incarceration has beneficial effects on children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult socioeconomic status. . . . Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.” The paper, “The Effects of Parental and Sibling Incarceration: Evidence from Ohio,” was coauthored by researchers at the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. Researchers studied a sample of children with parents on the margins of incarceration—that is, their incarceration status depended heavily on the leniency or severity of the judges handling their cases. They measured not only the life-outcome differences between the children with incarcerated parents or siblings and those without, but also the portion of those differences attributable to the incarcerations.
The authors highlight several potential explanations for why children might benefit from a family member’s incarceration, which differed depending on whether the incarcerated family member was a parent or a sibling. The study found that the benefits of parental incarceration for children owed less to the parent’s removal than to the deterrent effect, on the child, of witnessing the levying of criminal sanctions firsthand. That finding could, however, reflect that parents in the sample were mostly facing lower-level drug and property offenses; the removal effect of a parent engaged in more serious criminal conduct could be more pronounced. Contrasted with the effects of parental incarceration, the positive effects of a sibling’s incarceration were “concentrated almost exclusively in the short term”—that is, “while the sibling is still incarcerated.” This, the authors noted, “reflects that the removal of a criminogenic influence—as opposed to deterrence—is the more important mechanism [in cases of sibling incarceration], potentially because siblings can strongly influence one another towards or away from criminal activity.”
These findings resemble those from other studies done in the United States and elsewhere. In a study of incarcerated parents living with children in North Carolina, University of Colorado professor Stephen Billings found that “removing negative potential role models through incarceration benefits children”—particularly in terms of their behavior at school. A paper in Norway estimated “a 32 percentage point reduction over a four year period in the probability a younger brother will be charged with a crime if his older brother is incarcerated.” Economist Carolina Arteaga found, in a 2018 study of incarceration in Colombia, that “conditional on conviction, parental incarceration increases years of education by 0.8 years for children whose parents are on the margin of incarceration.”
While not definitive, the evidence on whether and to what extent incarceration harms children and families runs counter to the arguments of decarceration advocates. Several studies suggest that exposure to highly antisocial parents and siblings hurts children in the long run—and that these damaging effects outweigh the negative effects of losing a criminal parent. What to do about kids facing these situations is a debate very much worth having.
Photo: One research study found that children living with fathers who engage in very high levels of antisocial behavior will behave significantly worse themselves. (STEPHEN OSMAN/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES)