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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Incarceration in Fragile Families
Christopher Wildeman Bruce Western

Policy Prescriptions

The research that we have reviewed shows that incarceration contributes to family breakup and adds to the deficits of poor children. Despite almost universal agreement that strong families are a powerful source of social order and public safety, U.S. crime policy has, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and probably reduced the life chances of their children.

To avoid contradictions like this, policy makers must ask of any proposed reform: what will it do to families? Changes in criminal sentencing over the past thirty years offer a prime example. In at least two areas, punitive sentencing has had substantially negative effects on families. First, the widespread adoption of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes has incarcerated many men without significant histories of violence. Ironically, the families of these previously nonviolent men appear to have suffered the largest negative effects. Policy reform in this area would thus significantly limit prison time for drug offenders. Second, re-imprisoning parolees for violating the technical conditions of their parole has also incarcerated great numbers of men who pose relatively little risk to public safety. Technical parole violators have not necessarily committed new offenses, but have been sent back to prison for missing appointments, failing drug tests, or violating other conditions of parole.

For both drug offenders and parole violators, inexpensive and effective alternatives to incarceration are available. They include intensive community supervision, drug treatment where necessary, and a system of graduated sanctions that allows parole and probation officers to respond quickly to violations without sentencing offenders to disproportionately severe prison time. In Project HOPE in Hawaii, for example, probation violators who received swift, certain, but very short jail stays significantly reduced violations and drug use.62

Drug offenders and technical parole violators are the low-hanging fruit for sentencing reform. More ambitious reform would also review sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders, such as three-strikes statutes and truth-in-sentencing measures that require long stays in prison before eligibility for release. Three-strikes, truth-in-sentencing, and related measures have increased time served in prison, severely straining family ties and multiplying the costs to families of visitation.

Policies to support men and women returning home from prison could further reduce the costs to fragile families of high rates of incarceration. Though such programs exist, we suggest strengthening existing programs and making them more widely available. So-called prisoner reentry policies begin while men and women are still in prison. Substance abuse, education, training, and work programs are aimed at reducing recidivism and preparing incarcerated men and women for life in free society. Because prisoners average less than a twelfth-grade education, expanded educational programming in prison seems an urgent priority. The federal prison system, which houses about 10 percent of all prisoners, provides a good model for the states by mandating 240 hours of school programming for all prisoners without high school degrees. Improved literacy and more schooling would likely benefit fragile families by enhancing formerly incarcerated fathers' economic opportunities and, perhaps, the quality of their parenting. Vocational and work programs in prison are also associated with significant reductions in recidivism, as long as ten years after prison release.63

After release, prisoner reentry efforts often help men and women connect to services and job opportunities. Reentry programs provide transitional services for housing, treatment, education and training, and job placement. Recent evaluations suggest that when such services are offered immediately after prison release, they can reduce recidivism and improve employment among ex-prisoners. In particular, transitional employment programs that place former inmates in small crews to work on construction and community service projects have been found to reduce recidivism significantly several years after entry into the program.64 A few programs, such as Family Justice (formerly La Bodega de la Familia) in New York, involve family members and friends directly, enlisting them to support former prisoners in readjusting to the routines of free society and in participating in drug treatment programs.65

Though sentencing reform and prisoner reentry policy can help reduce the negative effects of incarceration on fragile families, perhaps the most effective proposals lie outside the sphere of criminal justice. Criminal justice reform, by itself, will not solve the problems of school failure, joblessness, untreated addiction, and mental illness that pave the pathway to prison in the first place. Chronically idle young men (and increasingly women) with few resources for self-improvement still present a social problem even if they are not incarcerated at high rates. Ultimately, addressing that problem will require a greater social commitment to education, public health, and the employment opportunities of low-skill men and women.

The great mistake of the prison boom was trying to solve hard social problems through crime policy. Punitive criminal justice not only failed to ameliorate those problems, but achieved only questionable success even as a strategy for enhancing public safety. Taking full account of the negative social effects of incarceration shows that the costs of mass imprisonment are far higher than correctional budgets suggest. More fundamentally, criminal justice agencies are only residual sources of social order. The primary sources of order and stability—public safety in its wide sense—are the informal social controls of family and work. The disruptive effects of mass incarceration that are concentrated in America's fragile families have weakened these sources of public safety. From this perspective, social policy holds the promise not only of improving the well-being of fragile families, but also, by strengthening families and providing jobs, of contributing to public safety.