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Fathers Behind Bars

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Fathers Behind Bars

10 Blocks podcast March 4, 2020
The Social Order

Rafael Mangual joins Kay Hymowitz to discuss evidence suggesting that children are often better off when criminal parents are imprisoned—the subject of Mangual’s story, “Fathers, Families, and Incarceration,” from the Winter 2020 Issue of City Journal.

A common criticism of incarceration in the United States, notes Mangual, is that it harms children by taking parents or siblings out of their homes. But recent studies show that children living with a parent who engages in high levels of antisocial behavior may be worse off than kids with incarcerated parents.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today's show, my colleague and longtime City Journal contributing editor, Kay Hymowitz, will interview another writer for the magazine, Ralf Mangual, to discuss his newest piece from the Winter 2020 Issue, entitled Fathers, Families, and Incarceration. You can find it on the City Journal website and we'll be sure to link to it in the podcast description.

As our listeners are probably aware, one of the criticisms of the criminal justice system, made by both radical activists and conservative reformers, at least some, is that incarceration tears families apart by taking parents and siblings out of their homes. Ralph's essay looks at the evidence for those, which suggests that jailing criminals is often better on balance for their families, especially for children. It's a fascinating piece. That's all for the introduction, we'll take a quick break, and then the conversation between Kay Hymowitz and Ralf Mangual will begin. We hope you enjoy.

Kay Hymowitz: Hello, this is Kay Hymowitz, I'm a Senior Fellow, William E. Simon Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and I'm going to be talking today to Rafael Mangual, who is also a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the Director of Legal Policy?

Rafael Mangual: Deputy Director.

Kay Hymowitz: Deputy Director.

Rafael Mangual: You promoted me.

Kay Hymowitz:  That's right. And also contributing editor at City Journal. Many, many hats. We're going to talk a little bit about criminal justice reform, but a very specific topic. One of the primary arguments that we make in the criminal justice debate is that incarceration breaks up families. The largest concern is about men because they are what, 95%?

Rafael Mangual: 90.

Kay Hymowitz: 90% of the incarcerated population.

Rafael Mangual: 90% of the incarcerated.

Kay Hymowitz: So the concern is that many children are being deprived of their dads. Now, I'm no slouch when it comes to worrying about fatherless families, I've been working on this issue for much of my career, but it's always troubled me about whether this made sense when you consider the kinds of fathers that children didn't have in the house and whether they were better off, maybe, without those fathers. So Rafael was smart enough to pursue this issue in a recent article for City Journal, I think it's just out today, and to actually look at the research, there is some research that would try to answer the question of whether children really are so much worse off when their fathers are incarcerated. The very obvious question being may are these guys men who would be good fathers to begin with? Okay, Rafael. So tell us a little bit about what you found as you started looking into this question.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. Again, as you mentioned, this has been one of the kind of go-to arguments of the criminal justice reform crowd and we're in the middle of a presidential election cycle right now and I've found that among the most popular candidates, this was something that has been parroted over and over and over again, and everyone kind of takes it for granted, I think because it's intuitive, the idea that if you remove a father, this is a potential income earner, a potential contributor to the household duties, a potential role model for the children, that the effects are going to be a net negative.

It always struck me as an argument that relied on a very important assumption, which as you mentioned, is that these men are likely to be good fathers, are likely to be reliable sources of economic stability as opposed to net drains on a house's Fisk, for example. I remembered, I don't know, got to be about five, six years ago now, when thinking about the question of fatherlessness, especially in low income minority neighborhoods, coming across some really interesting research by someone named Sarah Jaffe. She's done a lot of really amazing work in this space and one of her studies pretty clearly found that the benefits of a two-parent household could actually be negated by the presence of a parent who was characterized by a history of antisocial behavior. And I remembered reading that and I thought to myself, "Well, I wonder what the rate of antisocial behavior is among men who tend to get incarcerated." That's kind of where I started.

Kay Hymowitz: it should be pretty high I would think.

Rafael Mangual: It's quite high. So there was a study in the Lancet that found almost half of prisoners surveyed across 19 countries were diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Another study in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry found that, while the general public has a rate of antisocial personality disorder of about 1 to 3%, that within prisons, depending on where you were and the population, you were looking at the rate range from 40 to 70%. And I thought, "Well, this is really, really important." And something that doesn't ever really get acknowledged in the debate. And so that was really my starting point. I started doing a little more digging and found lots of research in the psychology and sociology space on the transmission of antisocial behavior from generation to generation.

Rafael Mangual: And what it consistently showed is that when you expose children within a vulnerable age group, so before they're around five to seven years old, to highly antisocial parents, those kids become very much more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviors themselves in later life and that antisocial behavior, they call it externalizing, is more likely to be associated with criminality in later life, it's more likely to be associated with poorer socioeconomic outcomes, poor performance in school, poor relationships, et cetera. It's something that I think really has to get looked at in terms of the incarceration debate. One of the things I was really surprised to find is that there's actually been some recent research on this specific question done by some criminologists.

So there's one study out of the state of Ohio, for example, that found that for parents, the children who had parents who were incarcerated... now I should step back and just really kind of give a sense of how these sorts of studies are done. They're not just comparing kids who have parents in jail and kids who don't.

Kay Hymowitz: I hope not, yes.

Rafael Mangual: They have to actually add in some controls. And so what they look at are populations of children with parents who are "on the margins of incarceration" so they do a kind of random judge assignment study where whether or not a parent gets incarcerated depends very heavily on the judge to whom that case is assigned. So this is generally a population of parents who are committing lower-level infractions that are not things like robbery, where there's an actual question as to whether they might get incarcerated or not, that is responsive to how punitive [inaudible 00:07:26] given judges.

And when you have that control in place and you look at the kids with the same types of parents and you break those kids up between those who have parents who get incarcerated and those who don't, interestingly, there's been a lot of studies that have found that the kids whose parents are incarcerated have significantly better outcomes on a host of measures, including criminality in later life, including educational attainment, performance on standardized exams, and socioeconomic outcomes at the age of 18 and later on in maturity. And I just thought, "Well wow, I mean this is really missing from the debate." And what I wanted to do with this essay is just put this information out there so that readers understand that this is a topic that is much more complicated than I think the other side let's on.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. I mean to me, I'm listening to you and I said, no way a criticism of you, but I'm thinking, "Duh." You know? Yeah, we know that children turn out a lot like the parents and learn so much from their parents in those early years and wondering why this hasn't been more apparent and more of a question in the minds of many of the policy people who are promoting the idea that this has been such a bad approach to... with such bad outcomes for children. Just to repeat, that final study that you just referred to, those people were in a prison for fairly minor crimes, relatively speaking.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: And even those children seem to be better off without... Now, I'm wondering if part of the issue that this question hasn't been asked, and that so many people seem perfectly comfortable with the idea that the men who are incarcerated will be good fathers and it's better to have them at home, is whether people are mistaking the problem of the drug offenses with all incarceration. It's not nearly that. And I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Rafael Mangual: There's actually a really interesting role that drug offenses play in this literature. So when we look at the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder among incarcerated individuals, the individuals who tend to have a greater likelihood of, say, violent criminal offending thereafter, or have a greater likelihood of being abusive in their relationships are those who have ASPD, antisocial personality disorder, that is comorbid with a substance use disorder such that the combination of those two diagnoses is actually associated with significantly worse outcomes, both for those individuals as well as their children.

And what's really interesting about that is that the lower-level drug offenders tends to be the hyper-focus of the criminal justice reform debate. You often hear people saying, "Well, these are people for whom incarceration provides no tangible benefit because they're nonviolent, they're lower-level, they're victims of their own addictions, et cetera." And what doesn't get considered is that this is actually the population that, when they have children, is most likely to have a negative effect on those children through their presence in the home. It's really a point of tension that I don't think has really been confronted yet by a lot of criminal justice reforms.

Kay Hymowitz: What kind of drugs are we talking about though?

Rafael Mangual: So it's really a mix but usually harder drugs, things like methamphetamines, heroin, crack-cocaine, where the psychosis that's associated with substance use when combined with that antisocial disorder really does manifest itself often in very aggressive outbursts, very harsh punishments, a coldness. It's a really sad literature to read because the children in these homes are really just at the mercy of the state to make a decision one way or the other. And while it may feel good for some to be able to say, "Well, we kept this family together," I think more attention needs to be paid to the possibility that that's not always a good thing.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. You're reminding me that I just saw an article, I believe it was in the New York Times, but I'm not sure, about a program in Kentucky, was it? Where the children as young as six are being trained to use whatever it is, the antidote to-

Rafael Mangual: Narcan.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah.

Rafael Mangual: That's right.

Kay Hymowitz: Narcan in case one of their parents is in need of it. Is that a good situation with kids? But address the issue that I think is probably, in some listeners' minds about marijuana.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: And the arrest factor there. We often get the impression from people who are in this area that there are large numbers of people in jail, particularly men, in jail just for marijuana use.

Rafael Mangual: Right, and that's just patently false. If you look at the state prison population, for example, only about 14% of the state prison population is in primarily on a drug offense. I say primarily because that means that that's the offense for which they're serving the most time. With that number, one thing that people often forget to account for is the fact that a conviction record, an official conviction record, usually understates the offense that the person actually committed because we know that about 95% of cases are pled down and so charges are dropped or modified so it almost always reflects something less than what the person actually did.

But even if you look at just that drug offending population, it's about 3 to 3.5% of the prison population that's in for just possession, which is what you would be in for if it was just for marijuana personal use and that reflects possession of all drugs so marijuana is an even smaller subset of that. On Rikers Island here in New York, you can, at least before bail reform went into effect, you could literally count on one hand the number of people who would've been in Rikers Island on a given day simply for a marijuana related offense. And almost always when those incarcerations happen, it's more a function of the fact that they have very extensive criminal histories where this is one of a very long list of transgressions that this person's committed. So it really isn't a factor in driving the prison population.

So when we talk about people who are incarcerated in America today, we're really talking about people who have had more than one second chance. We're talking about people who are engaged in a wide variety of antisocial behaviors, often violent, and even if they're not in for a violent offense at this moment, they've often committed a violent offense in the past or will go on to commit a violent offense in the future.

Just with drug offenders, for example, the Bureau of Justice statistics did a longitudinal study of more than 400,000 prisoners released in 2005, and it followed them for nine years, and what it found was that more than 75% of drug offenders were going to get rearrested for a non-drug crime after their release. More than a third of those drug offenders were rearrested for a violent crime specifically. So the idea that this is a largely nonviolent population I really think is one of the bigger misconceptions in the criminal justice reform debate.

And one more data point, just to put a finer point on it, is in 2017 the Baltimore Police Department identified 118 murder suspects. Of that 118, 70% had a prior drug offense in their criminal history somewhere. So again, when we say drug offender, I think the tendency for people who are not necessarily versed in the data is to think of this weak, meek, individual who's not particularly harmful, but that tends not to be the case. And when we're looking at parents who were abusive towards their children, for example, the combination of the ASPD with a substance use disorder is often very much a factor. It's something that people really need to contend with, I think.

Kay Hymowitz: Is there any data on how many of the incarcerated men have a history of domestic violence?

Rafael Mangual: Not that I'm aware of, although I'm sure that number is able to be gotten somewhere, but domestic violence is, at least in the jail population, is often a pretty significant driver for incarceration. It's not a small portion. Unfortunately, domestic violence situations will often result in an outcome that doesn't involve an incarceration because you'll have often a female victim retract the charge or decide not to cooperate. It's often a very complicated emotional situation at home and so that's just another area where I think you'll find, when you look into some of these cases where kids are abused or harmed... There's this new Netflix series now that's very popular on the case of Gabriel Fernandez out in Los Angeles, he was the eight year old who was murdered by his mother and stepfather, and there was this long history of abuse. And again, the mother had very much involvement with gangs and drugs throughout her life. It's a hard thing to confront, but again, nothing was really done until it got to that point of no return. And so even with the domestic violence data, I think it often understates the scope of that problem.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. It's puzzling that so many people who would be so alarmed by domestic violence and its effect on women are not thinking about this in relation to children living with fathers who are just coming out of jail or have been in jail.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: But just to sum up some of what you're saying, I think it's important to repeat, the men who are in jail who are fathers are very unlikely to be simply guilty of smoking a few joints.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: That's not what they're in jail for.

Rafael Mangual: Correct.

Kay Hymowitz: So that's not what we're talking about. And if I remember correctly, the percentage of, in state prisons, of men who are in jail for violent crimes is quite high.

Rafael Mangual: It's 55% of the overall population. And again, that's just based on the official conviction records, which often understands those things and it doesn't account for the percentage of the prison population that has a violent criminal history that may be serving time for a property offense or a weapons charge. So, for example, illegal weapons possession would not be considered a violent offense, but if you are a known gang member with a Glock in your pants and you get locked up for it, chances are it wasn't for a nonviolent purpose.

Kay Hymowitz: And do you want that guy taking care of the kids?

Rafael Mangual: Exactly. Unfortunately, the answer may seem to be yes. There was a case in the Bronx not too long ago, and I mentioned this in my piece, where this guy named Shaquille Chandler, he's done almost a decade in prison for I think it was manslaughter for a 2006 shooting where someone was killed. He was a verified member of the Crips and... very long criminal history, and was arrested recently by the NYPD in response to a shooting, so they were responding to the scene of a shooting. They were alerted to it by ShotSpotter. When they pulled up, they saw the subject kicking a firearm that was used in the shooting under a car, according to police. When he was up for his preliminary hearing, the judge in Bronx Criminal Court named Janine Johnson actually released him without bail citing, among other things, the fact that he had sole custody of his child.

When I read this I thought, "Well my God, is this really the sort of person that we want raising a child?" I understand that these are just charges at this point, there's been no conviction, but there's a long criminal history here. It seems to me, based on the statements of police and the reporting done in this case, that there's a pretty good chance that this man was involved. The idea that that would be a driver of an actual criminal justice outcome in the city of New York, which has generally been pretty tough on gun offenders, is really something that I think is scary, but also not that surprising when you consider the direction of this debate.

Kay Hymowitz: I think maybe what's driving people, including that judge, is just such suspicion of the justice system that the assumption is always in favor of the defendant.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: Having said that, we should tell our listeners whether we're really against criminal justice reform. I'm not. I doubt you are.

Rafael Mangual: No. No. I do think there are very many areas ripe for reform. I also tend to think, especially when it comes to incarceration, that the reforms that I think are probably best for us as a society are likely to be more on the margins than what some of the more popular voices in this movement are calling for. You have Van Jones, who runs the #cut50 initiative that wants to see an across the board reduction in the prison population by 50%, that I think is, is impossible to do without exposing society to a significant threat on the part of people who are in prison today, all of whom pose a real high probability of re-offending.

Rafael Mangual: One of the things that people don't understand is that 83% of release-state prisoners will go on to re-offend at some point. That's a desistance rate-

Kay Hymowitz: I think what people will often do is say, "Well, they learned that in prison."

Rafael Mangual: Right. Well, that often fails to explain two things. One is the crime that they're in prison for to begin with. And second, the fact that almost all of them have likely had one or two, if not three or four, chances before they were actually incarcerated. A prison sentence is actually a relatively rare sanction in the criminal justice system, especially for a first offense. So across all state felony convictions, only 40% result in a post-conviction prison sentence. So our colleague Heather McDonald likes to call a prison sentence a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal [crosstalk 00:22:44] because it usually takes a while before the system comes down, especially if you're a juvenile offender, so there's so many pretrial diversion programs and probation sentences and supervised release programs, et cetera, that people will often go through before they're sent to prison for a long time, unless it's a very serious crime.

So yeah, it really is a very misunderstood area. But no, I think there are plenty of opportunities for reform. I recognize that there's some subset of the prison population whose incarceration probably doesn't serve a legitimate penological end and we should be making sure we identify those people and letting them out, but I think that's a much smaller scale endeavor than what a lot of people want.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. I just wanted to add one piece of information that I stumbled across some years ago when I was doing a little bit of work on the question of family breakdown and incarceration. What I found was that, particularly when we're looking at the black family, by the time the war on drugs really took off, which was 1980, that's when you start to see a real increase in the percentage of men incarcerated. By that time, 50% of black children were being born to unmarried mothers already.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: That had been a huge jump in the previous several decades.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: And in fact, during a large part of the war on drugs, when you saw the biggest jump, some of that period, the breakdown or the non-marital birth rate had stabilized. So there really is no correlation or no reason to think that the problems with the family that we see, particularly among the poor and low income people more generally, has anything to do with incarceration.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. I think that that argument has always just gotten the direction of the causation wrong.

Kay Hymowitz: Exactly.

Rafael Mangual: It always seemed more probable to me that the things that would lead to that breakdown were often the same things that would lead to incarceration, that antisocial behavior, the rejection of societal norms, those are often things that are associated with making the decision to abandon a family or to have children out of wedlock and to take those risks. So it's a complicated field, it's a complicated literature, but it is robust, and it just really is something I hope people start to take a step back and grapple with more because, unfortunately, as things stand now, it's almost taken for granted that incarceration is the main driver of this. And I'm not sure that's the case.

Kay Hymowitz: Right. And one more question is how many of the men who are in prison are married?

Rafael Mangual: Very, very few. Now, there are many who have children. There was a data point that I cite in the article, by Senator Mike Lee, who observed in a speech recently that a majority of prisoners are also parents-

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, I saw that.

Rafael Mangual: -many of whom lived with their minor children. And he says this kind of lamenting that fact and I understand that he where he's coming from and I think that most of the people who make this argument are coming from a sincere place. Again, the decisions that landed them in prison are pretty good indicators it seems to me that we should at least hold some doubt as to whether they're going to be positive influences on their children.

Kay Hymowitz: And from what I'm been familiar with, family churn among the poor, I would really question how many of those men were actual bio-fathers of those children, they could have been partners of... We have a big problem in that population with what they call multi-partner fertility.

Rafael Mangual: That's right.

Kay Hymowitz: So it's hard to know who's the father.

Rafael Mangual: That's right.

Kay Hymowitz: And who's not. Though that data also I think raises some questions about this whole field.

Rafael Mangual: Yeah.

Kay Hymowitz: There was one final point that I wanted to make about the study. I think what you said it was an Ohio study that showed that some children were better off when their fathers were not living at home and were in jail instead.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: And you made the point that the researchers found that there it was the deterrent effect. I thought that was so interesting.

Rafael Mangual: It was really interesting. So what they found... so they studied both parental and sibling incarceration in that study, and what they found was, with regard to siblings, the positive effects of the incarceration were concentrated during the time the sibling was incarcerated and from that they inferred that it was really that influence's removal from the household that was allowing that child to thrive in these areas during that time period. Whereas the benefits of the parental incarceration were actually pretty far removed from the incarceration itself, they didn't show up immediately. The working theory is, is that the mechanism that led to that is that the positive effects were really driven by the deterrent impact of seeing the weight of the criminal justice system come down on a parent that in later life affected the decisions that that child was making.

Whereas, because there's so much of an influence that a sibling will have because of the closeness in age, that the benefits were really concentrated in the short run. And I thought that was really, really fascinating. Now, it could just very well be that the parents in that study, as I mentioned earlier, were lower-level offenders. So that might look different if we were dealing with more serious criminals. But I included that in there because I do think it's a really interesting part of the study because it's not just that we're talking about the potential benefits of removing an antisocial force from the home, but there are other ways in which that incarceration might also benefit not just that child but also the community at large. And the ripple effects of these are often beyond what we can understand and quantify, but they are real nonetheless. And so it was an important wrinkle that I thought was interesting to know.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. You often hear that the punishment doesn't have any deterrent effect.

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Kay Hymowitz: But you wonder whether it has an indirect deterrent effect-

Rafael Mangual: That's exactly right.

Kay Hymowitz: -on the younger generation, if not the people committing the crimes. Well, this is very interesting material and I hope we can bring a little bit of common sense into the reform movement, which we both approve of in many ways.

Rafael Mangual: Yes, ma'am.

Kay Hymowitz: But when it comes to citing how much the incarceration has been bad for children... Well, we'll have to really make that a much more complicated discussion.

Rafael Mangual: Indeed.

Kay Hymowitz: Thank you, Ralf.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

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