March 17, 2006

Incarceration Puts Stress on Marriage, Family

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As of today, 60 percent of young disadvantaged black men are at risk of being incarcerated at least once by their mid-thirties; this is eight times higher than the likelihood for white men in the same age category, according to Prof. Bruce Western, sociology, Princeton University. Western presented an examination of the scope and consequences of imprisonment in the United States yesterday in Myron Taylor Hall.

According to Western, since the 1970s, the United States has been going through a “prison boom.” Prison rates are increasing for men without higher education and with large racial disparities.

So why this disparity? And how is the growing number of imprisoned, or once-imprisoned, black men affecting marriage, family life and communities? Western explained that social inequality in the labor market leads many disadvantaged young men to turn to a life of drugs and crime.

As for marriage rates, only 11 percent of men in prison are married, yet they are just as likely to have children as those not in prison. The low marriage percentage could be due to an incapacitation effect: “You can’t be in a household and contribute to it if you’re locked up,” joked Western.

Another reason could be the natural selection process by women: incarceration can understandably decrease a man’s appeal by reducing his employment opportunities or by marking him as disreputable or violent.

In the Fragile Families Survey, mostly unmarried parents were interviewed in urban hospitals after their children were born and were interviewed again a year later. The survey found that, controlling for other variables, within that year, if one of the parents is, or has been at some point, incarcerated, that couple will divorce or separate. The survey also examined domestic violence. It found that men who have been incarcerated are much more likely to be involved in domestic violence after the birth of their children. According to the survey, 10 percent of black children have had a father in prison, as opposed to approximately four percent of Hispanic children and one percent of white children.

Princeton’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and the Center for Health and Wellbeing as well as Columbia University’s Social Indicators Survey Center and the National Center for Children and Families conducted the study.

Even though crime rates have decreased in recent years, perhaps the decrease is counterbalanced by the instability that incarceration creates. Prof. Elizabeth Peters, team project leader of the Evolving Family Project, which sponsored the lecture, believes the studies have just begun.

“We need better data,” said Peters, a professor of policy analysis and management. “There is so little information that talks about the prison and marriage processes. We have to start looking at it; it points to a potentially critical problem.”

So is incarceration necessary? Or is there a way to keep crime rates low without putting a significant percentage of the population behind bars? Could incarceration be putting an even greater strain on the community by taking husbands away from wives and fathers away from children?

Western believes that if the government emphasizes policing instead of incarceration, it may help: “You don’t have to send those who are arrested to prison. You could supervise them within the community or mandate schooling instead of prison time,” he said. “Even within the criminal justice realm, there are many things you can do that don’t involve incarceration.”

Archived article by Masha Rifkin
Sun Contributor