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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Incarceration in Fragile Families
Christopher Wildeman Bruce Western

The Demography of Punishment in America

In order to understand why incarceration may be so consequential for children in fragile families, we first must determine what is unique about American imprisonment. In this section, we document the novelty of American imprisonment, discuss the causes of the prison boom, and outline how common imprisonment is for adult men and parental imprisonment is for children.

Mass Imprisonment in Comparative-Historical Perspective
For most of the twentieth century, researchers studying U.S. child well-being were unlikely to see prisons as a source of social inequality. As late as the mid-1970s, only 100 out of every 100,000 Americans were incarcerated in a state or federal prison; only 2 percent of the population went to prison at any point in their lives.1 The nation's penal system would have seemed unlikely to weigh heavily on citizens' life chances, not just because the incarceration rate was low in an absolute sense, but also because of its historic stability. For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the American imprisonment rate per 100,000 rarely exceeded 125 or fell below 75.2

Today the U.S. incarceration rate is about seven times higher than the West European average and is approached only by rates in the penal systems of some former Soviet republics and South Africa.3 This is a drastic change from the early 1970s, when the American incarceration rate was only about twice the rate of most other wealthy democracies. Although the U.S. rate has been rising more slowly in recent years, it has continued to climb even through a recession that has caused deep cuts in state budgets. The American incarceration rate has been much higher than that of other long-standing democracies since at least the late 1980s, but American men have been at extremely high lifetime risk of imprisonment beginning only in the past decade, further setting the American penal system apart from those of other democracies. As of the early 2000s, 6.6 percent of Americans, and more than 11 percent of American men, could expect to go to prison at some point.4 These figures show that mass imprisonment5 is historically novel within America and that imprisonment is now a common experience for adult men.

The Causes of Mass Imprisonment
What caused the U.S. imprisonment rate to increase so sharply? Rising crime would seem an obvious suspect. But because crime rates have risen and fallen significantly since the mid-1970s while the imprisonment rate has been climbing without interruption, the year-to-year fluctuations in crime are unlikely to have directly produced the steady decades-long increase in the imprisonment rate. Though a variety of explanations have been proposed, researchers agree on two main causes for rising imprisonment: changes in the economic and social life of urban men with little schooling, and a punitive turn in criminal justice policy. It is helpful to think of the first as providing the raw material for the prison boom and the second as transforming this raw material into a greatly enlarged penal population.

Before the late 1960s, urban manufacturing industries helped guarantee the livelihoods of low-skilled men in American cities. Unemployment rates of these men were relatively high compared with those of men with more schooling, but most prime-age men with only a high school education were working at wages that could support a family. Their jobs provided stakes in conformity6 not only through their stability, but also through the family ties that a steady paycheck helped support. Urban manufacturing thus provided not just a decent standard of living, but also a daily routine and an attachment to mainstream social institutions. In this setting, deindustrialization was catastrophic. Wide-spread joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods coupled with the emergence of a gray economy and a booming drug trade to foster addiction and careers in crime, leaving young men in inner cities vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.7

At this point, changes in the criminal justice system became important. As late as the mid-1970s, many arrests—most significantly, for public order and drug offenses—would have drawn no more than a small fine or a short spell of community supervision. From the mid-1970s, a punitive shift in criminal justice policy turned imprisonment into the primary penalty for a felony conviction. Tougher drug sentences, together with limits on parole and sentence enhancements for repeat and violent offenders, increased prison admission rates and time served in prison.8 Policing also intensified, and drug arrest rates, particularly among African Americans, increased sharply through the 1980s. In this way, the combination of a declining labor market for low-skill men and a punitive shift in criminal justice policies produced a sharp increase in incarceration rates.

Disparities in the Cumulative Risk of (Parental) Imprisonment
Were imprisonment evenly distributed throughout the population, it would be of no greater consequence for fragile families than for any other demographic group. But large racial and class disparities in imprisonment have produced extremely high lifetime risks of imprisonment for minority men with little schooling, and small but rapidly growing risks of imprisonment for similar women. Because these men and women are unlikely to marry but no less likely than those outside of prison to have children, they are likely to form fragile families.

Table 1 shows changes in the risk of imprisonment by age thirty to thirty-four for cohorts of men born between 1945–49 and 1975–79.9 The risk nearly tripled for white men and more than doubled for African American men. Although both groups experienced large relative increases in the risk of imprisonment, the absolute change in this risk was much larger for African American men. In the youngest cohort, born between 1975 and 1979, around one in five African American men experienced imprisonment; for comparable white men, the risk was around one in thirty.

When risks are further broken down by level of education within racial groups, differences in the risk of imprisonment become even more pronounced. Most notably, African American men in recent cohorts who did not complete some college had around a one in three chance of going to prison at some point, while African American men in the same cohort who dropped out of high school had a two in three chance of being incarcerated. Imprisonment among white men is significantly lower. Even for the most marginal group of white men—those who did not complete high school—only 15.3 percent went to prison. Thus the consequences of mass imprisonment are concentrated among those already most on the periphery of society—African American and (to a lesser degree) white men with little schooling—the same segments of society in which fragile families are most likely to be formed.

Incarceration and single parenthood, concentrated among minority men and women with little schooling, combined to produce high rates of imprisonment among fathers in disadvantaged families. The combination of incarceration and single parenthood is reflected in marriage rates of men in prison. While about 25 percent of African American men aged twenty-two to thirty who are not incarcerated are married, the marriage rate is only 11 percent among incarcerated men (figure 1). Surveys of men in prison find that though they are less likely to be married than men who are not in prison, they are just as likely to have children. As a result, African American children growing up in fragile families are likely to have fathers who have been incarcerated at some point.

While children growing up in fragile families are likely to have a father who has been incarcerated, how likely is it that children overall will have a parent, either a father or a mother, who is imprisoned during their childhood? Table 2 reports estimates of a child's risk of paternal and maternal imprisonment by age fourteen. The table compares two cohorts, one born in 1978 and reaching age fourteen in 1992, at the beginning of the era of mass incarceration, and a younger cohort born in 1990 and reaching age fourteen in 2004, at the height of the American prison boom.10 The table indicates that parental, especially paternal, imprisonment has become quite common for children in fragile families in the past decade. One of every four African American children born in 1990 had a father go to prison. For children of high school dropouts, the share was one-half. For whites, by contrast, only seven of every one hundred children born in 1990 whose fathers were high school dropouts experienced paternal imprisonment. Estimates using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study confirm that many children in fragile families experience paternal imprisonment.11

In light of rapid growth in the risk of imprisonment for women over this period, the risk of maternal imprisonment might also be expected to have grown.12 Table 2 also presents estimates of the risk of maternal imprisonment, by maternal education and the child's race and birth cohort, and suggests two conclusions. First, the risk of maternal imprisonment for white children is tiny. Even white children whose mothers did not finish high school had only a 1 percent chance of experiencing maternal imprisonment. Second, for African American children, especially those with low-education mothers, maternal imprisonment has become somewhat common. Fully 5 percent of African American children born in 1990 to mothers who did not complete high school had their mother imprisoned. Even more striking, the risk of paternal imprisonment for white children born in 1990 (3.6 percent) is comparable to the risk of maternal imprisonment for African American children born that same year (3.3 percent).

The focus in this section has been on racial disparities in the risk of parental imprisonment during childhood. But point-in-time disparities are important too. By the year 2000, nearly 10 percent of all African American children but only 1 percent of all white children had a parent incarcerated on any given day.13 This statistic emphasizes the potentially substantial racial disparities in the total amount of time children spend with a parent incarcerated.