The impact of incarceration on African American families

Despite the economic instability created by the Great Recession, the United States has retained the dubious distinction of being the world leader in incarceration rates (Walmsley, 2018). The financial crisis did prompt the federal government, and many state govermnents, to reevaluate the costs of incarceration, but this has had little effect on overall incarceration rates across the country. There was a small decline in these rates during and shortly after the recession, but a glaringly obvious racial disparity in the composition of the nation’s incarcerated population remains to this day.

African Americans continue to be incarcerated at rates which are egregiously disproportionate to the general population and completing a term of imprisonment does not signify the end of a period of punishment. Adults who are convicted of a crime, no matter how minor, face an array of challenges in terms of obtaining gainful employment, establishing stable housing, and entering educational programs, just to name a few. The effects of incarceration also radiate throughout families, affecting parents, grandparents, spouses, significant others, and especially children.

One of the goals of this chapter is to review the level of involvement among African Americans in the criminal justice system in the United States before, during, and after the Great Recession. This establishes a context for a deeper understanding of the ripple effects that incarceration has on African American families, especially children. An overview of the most recent research on the detrimental effects of imprisonment on families serves as a foundation for a discussion of several innovative policy reforms.

Incarceration and the perpetual punishment of African Americans

The United States experienced a long overdue decline in incarceration rates during and immediately following the Great Recession. Penal budgets were not protected against the calamitous economic conditions that rapidly emerged during this period, causing many states to lose revenue. This forced governments to cut correctional costs and some went so far as to close detention facilities in a desperate effort to reduce spending (Gottschalk, 2010). Volatility in fiscal budgets and drastic reductions in federal funding for corrections expenditure contributed to the first observable decrease in the overall state and federal prison population since 1972 (Brown, 2013; Pew Charitable Trust, 2010).

This initial plateau and dip in incarceration rates may seem like a promising change in the nation’s correctional system, but closer inspection of the data reveals a more nuanced story. First, a review of the state and federal prison incarceration rates, presented in Table 8.1, indicates that these decreases were marginal. Yes, the total incarceration rates in the country's state and federal detention facilities trended downward beginning in 2008, the year immediately following the official onset of the recession, but this particular drop amounted to one-tenth of one percent (0.1%). The descending pattern continued far past the official end of the recession in 2009 and extended through to 2016 with the largest reductions taking place from 2011 to 2012 and from 2014 to 2015 (which were equivalent to 2.8% at both points in time).

The changes in incarceration rates were more erratic in the population of county jails during this period. Although the overall pattern revealed a reduction in the population confined in local detention centers, this was not as consistent from year-to-year as that observed in state and federal correctional facilities. For instance, an examination of the available data, also presented in Table 8.1, indicates the total incarceration rate in local jails fell between 2010 and 2011, but it immediately rebounded and increased from 2011 to 2012. This rise was marginal (0.3%, to be precise), but it nonetheless represented an increase in the number of adults in custody in local jails. This was followed by a fairly large drop (2.9%) during the following year (2012-2013), and was immediately proceeded by

Table 8.1 Incarceration rates per 100,000 population by racial and ethnic group among adults aged 18 and over

State and federal prison Local jails

Year

White

Black

Hispanic

Total

White

Black

Hispanic

Total

2006

324

2,261

1,073

666

t

t

t

t

2007

317

2,233

1,094

670

t

t

t

t

2008

316

2,196

1,057

669

t

t

t

t

2009

308

2,134

1,060

665

t

t

t

t

2010

307

2,059

1,014

656

168

745

233

315

201 1

299

1,973

990

644

167

720

219

307

2012

293

1,873

949

626

173

708

213

308

2013

291

1,817

922

623

174

668

200

299

2014

289

1,754

893

612

178

668

200

302

2015

281

1,670

862

595

169

607

174

277

2016

274

1,608

856

582

171

599

185

280

Note: Adapted from Carson, 2018; Prisoners in 2016 and Zeng, 2018; Jail inmates in 2016.

■¡■Data for jail inmates were not available from 2006 to 2009.

another increase (1.0%) from 2013 to 2014. Interestingly, there was a relatively large decline (8.3%) in the total population of jail inmates from 2014 to 2015, but this was met with an abrupt 1.1% increase in the population from 2015 to 2016. It is important to note that jail populations tend to fluctuate much more than prison populations, due to their intended purpose; these facilities are generally designed to hold pretrial detainees and inmates who are sentenced to incarceration periods of less than one year, making census counts in jails sensitive to these factors. Nevertheless, the overall incarceration rates in America’s jails represent a substantial number of adults held in custody in these detention centers.

Further examination of the trends in incarceration rates among racial and ethnic minority group members demonstrates some alarming trends in prisons as well as in jails. First, it is worth acknowledging that the rate in African Americans incarcerated in the country’s prisons consistently declined over the decade spanning 2006 to 2016. The smallest dip was observed just prior to the Great Recession with a 1.2% decrease from 2006 to 2007. In comparison, the largest drop (5.1%) was observed shortly after the official end of the Recession between 2011 and 2012.

Second, the incarceration rates of African Americans in the nation’s jails follow the same inconsistency observed in overall jail incarceration rates. For example, there was a substantial (5.1%) decrease in the rate of African Americans held in local jails from 2012 to 2013, but this rate remained static from 2013 to 2014. This stagnation was immediately followed by a large (9.1%) decline from 2014 to 2015.

At first glance, these reductions in incarceration rates among African Americans can be applauded for the beneficial impact on the population, but comparing the incarceration rates of African Americans to other racial and ethnic groups tells a much different story. Overall, 2,261 per 100,000 African Americans were incarcerated in state and federal prison facilities in 2006 compared to 324 per 100,000 white adults, which is presented in Table 8.2. This translates to an incarceration rate of African American adults over the age of 18 that was 6.98 times higher than the rate for white adults in the same age bracket in the same year (2006) in the nation’s prison system. To make matters worse, this disproportionality peaked in 2007 when the disparity rose and African Americans were more than seven times as likely to be incarcerated in prison compared to white adults. This gap narrowed slightly as the Great Recession unfolded, with African Americans being an average 6.5 times as likely as white adults to be imprisoned in the period between 2006 and 2016.

A similarly stark contrast between African American and white adults appears when examining the incarceration rates in American jails. In 2010, immediately following the Great Recession, African Americans were almost 4.5 times as likely as white adults to be detained in local jails. This dropped to an incarceration rate in jails 3.5 times as high as white adults in 2016, but African Americans were nearly 4 times as likely as white adults, on average, to be held in jails from 2010 to 2016.

Table 8.2 Racial and ethnic comparisons in incarceration rates among adults aged 18 and over

Year

State and federal prison

Local jails

Black vs.

White

Black vs.

Hispanic

Black vs.

Total

Black vs.

White

Black vs.

Hispanic

Black vs.

Total

2006

6.98

2.11

3.39

t

t

t

2007

7.04

2.04

3.33

t

t

t

2008

6.95

2.08

3.28

t

t

t

2009

6.93

2.01

3.21

t

t

t

2010

6.71

2.03

3.14

4.43

3.20

2.37

201 1

6.60

1.99

3.06

4.31

3.29

2.35

2012

6.39

1.97

2.99

4.09

3.32

2.30

2013

6.24

1.97

2.92

3.84

3.34

2.23

2014

6.07

1.96

2.87

3.75

3.34

2.21

2015

5.94

1.94

2.81

3.59

3.49

2.19

2016

5.87

1.88

2.76

3.50

3.24

2.14

Note: Adapted from Carson, 2018; Prisoners in 2016 and Zeng, 2018; Jail inmates in 2016.

■¡■Data for jail inmates were not available from 2006 to 2009.

Incarceration rates comprise an important part of the story related to how African American families were impacted by the Great Recession, but there is also a substantial proportion of the adult population under other forms of correctional supervision, namely probation and parole programs, as observed in Table 8.3. In fact, among the 6.7 million people in adult correctional systems in the United States in 2015, nearly three quarters, or 4.7 million, were under some form of community supervision (Kaeble & Glaze, 2016). Similar to the previously observed incarceration rates, African Americans are disproportionately represented in the populations of adults on probation and parole and these proportions have remained consistent for a decade. African Americans represented nearly one-third of all adults on probation in 2005, 2014, and 2015, and even larger proportions of adults on parole during the same periods. Estimates show that 1 in every 21 African American adults (and 1 in 12 African American men) was supervised on probation during 2007, the peak year. This stands in drastic contrast to the national average of 1 in 53 adults, lin 65 white adults, and 1 in 41 white men (Phelps, 2017).

Community supervision programs, including probation, are obviously different from imprisonment in that adults are not removed from the community, but they are similar in that they both cany with them a formal criminal record; this history can negatively impact adults and their families in many ways. With the continuing expansion of these records being placed on online platforms, more and more people are gaining access to them. It is also the case that once these records are released into the public domain they can be seen by friends, immediate and distant relatives, children, employers, and others who are capable of conducting a simple online search. Research has shown that adults report withdrawal

Table 8.3 Proportion of adults aged 18 and over on probation and parole

Year

Probation

Parole

White

Black

Hispanic

White

Black

Hispanic

2005

55%

30%

13%

41%

40%

18%

2014

54%

30%

13%

43%

39%

16%

2015

55%

30%

13%

44%

38%

16%

Note: Adapted from Kaeble & Bonczar, 2016; Probation and parole in the United States, 2015.

from social activities due to fear of their criminal record being discovered by school officials, for example (Lageson, 2016). The reluctance of parents to engage with social institutions on behalf of their children shows how the influence of the criminal justice system can leave a lasting mark on a family and have an impact on someone who has been recently sentenced to probation supervision or who successfully completed a community supervision program years previously. The ease with which these records have become available has far-reaching effects that go largely unnoticed.

These records are also accessible for potential employers to immediately access in the process of conducting a background check prior to making a job offer. Research has shown that the majority (60%) of employers have indicated they would be unlikely to hire someone with a criminal record, especially if the applicant is African American (Stuckey, 2008; Uggen, Vuolo, Lageson, Ruhland, & Whitham, 2014). Examination of racial disparities in the context of employability of those with a criminal history has revealed that white adults with criminal records received more favorable treatment relative to African Americans without criminal records (Pager, 2003). Considering the proportion of the African American population that has come into contact with the criminal justice system through imprisonment, being booked into the local jail, or placed on probation supervision, exclusion from the workforce takes place on a grand scale, and this was exacerbated by the market constriction caused by the Great Recession. For those who remain persistent in their search for gainful employment, it can take as long as 20 years before they return to the same level of employability as someone who does not have a criminal record (Blumstein & Nakamura, 2009).

The long-term economic consequences of incarceration also accumulate when considering that adults can become ineligible for certain licensures and certifications as a direct result of their conviction, or even of simply being arrested and not necessarily convicted. Depending on certain laws and on the adjudicated offense, an individual can be permanently disqualified on the basis of a lengthy list of professional requirements, further limiting already truncated economic opportunities (The Council of State Governments, 2017). Although many adults who experience this level of disenfranchisement may be less concerned about exclusion from other state-sanctioned systems, given their inability to meet basic financial needs. it is still important to note that formerly incarcerated adults can be denied access to public services such as food stamps; in some cases they can be permanently relieved of their voting rights, and no longer qualify to serve on a jury. These indeterminate sanctions go a long way in further marginalizing adults who already survive on the fringes of mainstream society.

Many adults on community supervision run the risk of being arrested for behavior deemed in violation of the court-ordered conditions of their release from confinement and this can significantly impact the ways in which they interact, or likely withdraw, from social situations and family members. Goffmann (2014) documents many examples of how legal status directly affects family dynamics in her observations of social life among young African American men in Philadelphia. In one instance, a young man subject to arrest for violation of the conditions of a community supervision program prepared to visit his girlfriend in the hospital immediately following the birth of their first child. However, because he was fearful that he may be arrested and re-incarcerated, he avoided making the visit to the medical center.

When an individual does return to jail or prison, family members may be inclined to report to the jail to fetch personal possessions. Others make arrangements to consistently attend court hearings, which can easily interfere with their own daily lives, placing high physical and financial demands on all parties involved. Family members have also been known to share these burdens by taking turns attending some of the legal proceedings and spreading costs around to all who are willing to help (Goffman, 2014).

There is no doubt that incarceration, for any length of time, has widespread implications for family life. Practically speaking, low-level criminal justice involvement consisting of relatively brief jail stays lasting a few days to a few weeks can completely uproot a family, perhaps more than an extended prison sentence. Family members of adults who are booked into jails often receive repeated calls for help upon release. Often, periods of incarceration are long enough to initiate eviction for failure to pay rent, withholding of public assistance programs, and for parents having children placed into the custody of state programs (Comfort, 2016). At the same time, these abbreviated jail stays are too short to provide adults with anything more than basic medical care and triage drug or alcohol withdrawal, never mind to address any sort of mental health needs or provide educational programs. In short, jail stays, regardless of their length, significantly destabilize the lives of the adults who are admitted, and have ripple effects that radiate out through families.

After release, adults typically experience financial struggles and potential homelessness, and many continue to be closely monitored by the correctional system in probation and parole programs. Many are taken in by family members: grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles - anyone who is willing to provide the newly freed a place to stay. At this point, and under this level of supervision, family hosts are subject to frequent phone calls by probation officers, unannounced visits from parole officers, perhaps even unannounced police-initiated searches due to suspected violations of any number of court-ordered conditions. These constant invasions of personal life are often a lot to manage and can easily contribute to social and emotional turmoil in the household. Evidence has shown that, in many cases, these inordinate demands have a significant negative impact on family relations and also increase the likelihood of the dissolution of cohabitat-ing partnerships (Apel, 2016; Arditti, 2012).

 
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