1 in 28 American children have an incarcerated parent. This is a dramatic increase over 2 decades ago when this number was 1 in 125, according to a 2010 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study also found that parents of children under age 18 make up more than half of the incarcerated population.
Most of these parents are serving time for non-violent crimes and about half said they were the primary providers for their children before being locked up.
The lost years can wreak havoc on the family.
About a month ago, I profiled a friend whose mother wrote “bad checks” to provide for her family. After she was convicted and jailed, he was sent to live with an aunt. He reflected on how strained their relationship has become since her incarceration, even after she was freed. But says he does understand why she committed the crime.
It becomes a paradox for impoverished families who commit what I call need-based crimes, in which the crime is an attempt to provide for loved ones. Drug dealing to supplement household income would be an example of this kind of crime. This is not to excuse the crime, but to say that we have to understand that these crimes originate from a deeper social ill.
But crime is also not inevitable. Impoverished people are much more likely to be law-abiding, even if it means struggling to make ends meet. The likelihood to commit crime is just escalated as people seek ways to provide for their family, or even themselves.
Many of our citizens are unable to do so. This may be because of unemployment, underpaid employment, debt, or similar reasons. And it’s important to note that unemployment can be the fault of the individual but the shifting tide of desired skills and technology also plays a role. The latter is much more devastating because it has a larger and longer-lasting impact on the community.
Need-based crimes cause harm even after incarceration. Formerly convicted people are often unable to reenter the work force, due to a stigma that pervades corporate America. And when they are able to secure employment, they receive, on average, lower wages than those who’d never been incarcerated.
When researchers controlled for years of experience, the numbers barely changed.
“This implies that incarceration’s effect on economic outcomes has much more to do with having been convicted and imprisoned than it does with the work experience lost while imprisoned,” said the study. “In other words, having a history of incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success.”
Although the immediate reward of a crime seems to be worth it, the risk families then face is not. When the person is arrested and convicted, the crime becomes more harmful in the long run than the original results were rewarding, socially and financially. The same people then face the likelihood of recommitting similar crimes because they are financially worse off than before their incarceration.
Need-based crimes will exist as long as need does. And need is rooted in any number of issues: employment trends, education (or lack thereof), cycles of poverty, and, to some extent, discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation, all of which seem to be permanent fixtures in our society.
We can be tough on crime and institute policies like mandatory minimum sentencing that simply further disenfranchise society’s marginalized populations. Or we can find policies that address the needs of the community, and does so not by enabling the people, but by empowering them.