Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine

11.27.2012, 1:38 PM

Barry Deutsch wonders if the divergence between recent trends in single motherhood and crime means that marriage is no longer the best strategy to deter crime. But he (and Philip Cohen in The Atlantic) don’t bother to map out another big trend rising since the late 1980s: incarceration.

In fact, we know from work done by sociologists Sara McLanahan and Cynthia Harper that boys raised in a home without their father are more than twice as likely to end up in prison by the time they turn 30. In their words:

[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.

So, the weakening link between single motherhood and crime to which Barry refers may be a consequence of dramatic recent increases in incarceration in the United States. That is, insofar as comparatively large numbers of young men from single-mother and step-families are now landing in prison, they may be simply unable to commit crimes–hence, the recent drop in the violent crime rate. Or it could be that improved policing is driving the trend. Or something else.

But I would like to see some good empirical research on this question, not just two trend lines, before we seek to minimize the link between family structure and crime. In the absence of such research, it’s just as plausible to argue, based on the incarceration trend noted above, that incarceration is now driving down violent crime in America. And I bet Barry and I can agree that mass incarceration is not the ideal way to reduce violent crime. Heck, if forced to choose between a stronger marriage culture and mass incarceration, Barry might even choose a stronger marriage culture.

But, right now, given the state of empirical research, the jury about crime in America is still out. And two lines on a graph cannot settle the debate about family structure and crime.

PS – A paper by Johnson and Raphael suggests that much of the initial decline in the violent crime rate was indeed driven by increases in incarceration but that the continuing decline seems to be attributable to other factors. One colleague who studies this issue thinks shifts in the numbers of young men and the end of the Crack epidemic also help explain this downturn.


23 Responses to “Who Needs An Intact Family? Jail Will Do Just Fine”

  1. Amy Ziettlow says:

    On a separate but related note, this morning I was reviewing a recent PEW report on the collateral costs of incarceration that reports that in 2010 one child out of 28 had an incarcerated parent, over 2.7 million children. Completely staggering.

  2. Diane M says:

    Thanks, W. Bradford Wilcox. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think this is a solution and I hate mandatory minimums.

    Amy Ziettlow, have you written pieces on the effects of incarceration on families?

    And a question for W. Bradford Wilcox – what do you mean by “a marriage culture”? How would that work? How would we get there?

  3. Mont D. Law says:

    This graph is not really meaningful unless it factors in the effects of disproportionate sentencing of nonwhite nonviolent drug offenders. It’s a pretty clear explanation for declining marriage rates in the nonwhite community though.

  4. Diane M says:

    “It’s a pretty clear explanation for declining marriage rates in the nonwhite community though.”

    Yes, although I would expand that statement to all low-income communities. The incarceration may be disproportionate, but that still means a lot of white men in jail (most of them?).

    It’s a great example of a vicious cycle. Lock up a whole bunch of non-violent offenders. Leave kids to grow up without their dads. Increase the number of potential violent criminals, but then sweep them up when you lock up everyone.

  5. Matthew Kaal says:

    Recently, while doing demographics research on New York state for an IAV gambling project I spend a lot of time looking at census data at the county subdivision level.

    The first that struck me most while collecting my data was how in rural upstate New York there is very little racial diversity and an obvious decline in birthrates. A few outlier vibrant towns, NYC, and the downstate suburbs by contrast have average birthrates and high diversity.

    Second I noticed that if I ever saw a spike in the percentage of males, or particularly African American or Latino males, within a community it generally indicated that there was either a military base or some sort of prison in the community elevating those numbers. It was striking that you could almost instantly tell that about a community just by looking at the raw data.

  6. For the record, Brad, I’m very much in favor of a “strong marriage culture,” if that means a culture in which the large number of people who want stable, happy marriages can find a good partner to marry, and most children are raised by two parents that they live with.

    As for incarceration, I think the incarceration levels in the 1970s were too low, but they have since been raised to a level far above the efficient level for reducing violent crime. (Although all crime has gone down recently, the graph I posted focused on violent crime.)

    As this Sentencing Project report linked in the other thread argues:

    Expanding the use of imprisonment inevitably results in diminishing returns in crime control. This is because high-rate and serious or violent offenders will generally be incarcerated even at modest levels of imprisonment, but as prison systems expand, new admissions will increasingly draw in lower-rate offenders.

    The Sentencing Project report suggests that 25% of the decline in crime (which is very significant) is due to increased incarceration. But we could probably have achieved nearly that 25% with a much less extreme increase in incarceration. And the other 75% was achieved through other means (some of it perhaps having little to do with public policy, such as the crack trend ending).

    I think framing it as “we can have lower crime rates even while single motherhood goes up, but only by accepting skyrocketing incarceration” (which you don’t exactly do here, but some folks did that in the comments responding to my post) is not accurate or helpful.

    I didn’t claim that single motherhood and crime are not at all connected. I do think the rather extreme lack of correlation in recent years, however, suggests that single motherhood is very unlikely to be a primary driver of violent crime. To suggest that strengthening marriage should be our primary policy for reducing violent crime – as conservatives such as Paul Ryan have – is difficult to square with recent trends.

  7. Diane M says:

    @Barry – I would not suggest that the primary policy for reducing violent crime should be marriage counseling. I would suggest that the kind of marriage culture you describe could help to prevent some violent crime.

    I think overall trends in the culture don’t necessarily prove anything about the connection between father-absence and crime. I think the article you linked to was presenting things in a way that might leave people thinking that father-absence doesn’t matter.

    I also think that there are many good reasons to strengthen marriage. I think it makes sense to use reducing crime as one justification for promoting programs that will produce a bunch of social goods.

  8. Mont D. Law says:

    (It was striking that you could almost instantly tell that about a community just by looking at the raw data.)

    That doesn’t surprise me at all.

    (But throughout the United States, race, class and zip code play a far greater role in determining who is healthy and who isn’t, according to one of the country’s most prominent public health experts.)

    http://tinyurl.com/cfbmxv2

    I would also point out the sending these potential husbands to jail drastically reduces their ability to be husbands even after they get out of jail. On top of the time spent in a training school for violent criminals they can’t get good jobs, qualify for student loans, live in subsidized housing or join the military.

  9. David Blankenhorn says:

    I agree with Brad that those two lines on a graph don’t and can’t tell us anthing about the relationship between the two phenomena. Period.

    Personally I suspect that the main reason for the drop in crime has been the astronomical rise of incarceration, combined with MUCH harsher social approaches to crime in general, but that thesis, too, cannot be proven in any straightforward way, as far as I can see.

  10. R.K. says:

    Mont D.: It’s a pretty clear explanation for declining marriage rates in the nonwhite community though.

    Diane: Yes, although I would expand that statement to all low-income communities. The incarceration may be disproportionate, but that still means a lot of white men in jail (most of them?).

    Is the incarceration rate, high as it has jumped, really enough to be the main factor behind the drop in the marriage rate? I doubt it (and I’m not sure if that’s what Mont D. and Diane are really saying), though I agree that to better look into that any comparison graphs should factor in (or factor out, I should say) the number of men incarcerated. David’s right, you just don’t have enough to go on here to prove or disprove a causal connection.

  11. Diane M says:

    R.K. – good point, incarceration is probably not the main factor behind the drop in the marriage rate.

    The incarceration rate probably has nothing to do with the drop in the marriage rate for middle class families.

    It may be very significant for lower income families, though. Maybe someone who has studied this can comment or provide a link.

    It’s not just that a group of single men and fathers are pulled out of the community. When they return to the community, they are going to have problems getting jobs. In addition, the imbalance in the number of males to females may allow the men who aren’t in prison to be jerks and still have girlfriends.

  12. Diane, it’s not the main factor (there may not even BE a “main factor”), but it’s significant, perhaps accounting for over 10% of the decline in marriage rates. I posted about incarceration and marriage here.

  13. Diane M says:

    Thanks, Barry Deutsch. I would say a 13% decrease in marriage overall is a huge problem.

    From the abstract of the study your earlier blog links to:

    In particular, higher male imprisonment appears to have lowered the likelihood that women marry, modestly reduced the quality of their spouses when they do marry, and shifted the gains from marriage away from women and toward men.

    Do you know how they calculated the decrease? Does that account for all the effects of the incarceration, or could there be additional ripple effects like all the other men have more ability to cheat or not make commitments?

  14. Barry – I would agree with you that marriage is no panacea for any or all of our social problems. Lots of factors in play here, from poverty to policing to incarceration. But I also think the crime rate would be even lower than it currently is if more children were being raised in intact families.

  15. hello says:

    Mont D. Law,
    You’re arguing that if most of these “non-violent drug offenders” were not in prison for their crimes they would be, at least, decent husbands and fathers. First off such a man is in all likelihood-at best- a drug user. Drug users tend not to make good husbands and fathers for a wide variety of reasons that I need not go into because you and everyone reading this already knows what they are. Secondly, a significant portion of men who are in prison for “non-violent drug offenses” are dealers. Have you ever heard of a drug dealer who had never been involved in a violent crime? I guarantee you that almost any drug dealer who gets picked up for possession with intent to distribute has been involved in at minimum one violent crime that he wasn’t caught for. Mont, you would never want your sister or your daughter to marry a man whom you knew was a drug user or a drug dealer. So why do you think such men are good enough for poor minority women?

  16. Drug users tend not to make good husbands and fathers for a wide variety of reasons that I need not go into because you and everyone reading this already knows what they are.

    I’ve used drugs. Nearly everyone I know has used recreational drugs at one time or another. Lots of successful people – including President Obama – went through periods of frequent recreational drug use. So I think this statement is too sweeping.

    People’s lives are not set in concrete by the time they’re eighteen or twenty. A life can turn around – but becomes far less likely to turn around after two to five years in prison.

    That said, I do agree that reducing the overuse of prisons for nonviolent offenders is not sufficient. But it’s necessary.

    As for the “there’s no such thing as a non violent low-level dealer,” I suspect you watch too much TV.

  17. Brad:

    But I also think the crime rate would be even lower than it currently is if more children were being raised in intact families.

    I agree. (With all respect, I really don’t think I ever said otherwise.)

  18. Philip Cohen says:

    “Don’t bother”? I plot incarceration trends a lot (follow this tag for the list: http://familyinequality.wordpress.com/tag/prison/). The prison craze has done vast damage, mostly to America’s Black and poor folks. It may have reduced crime a little – mostly earlier in the prison boom years when there more violent offenders and fewer nonviolent drug offenders going in. It has probably increased crime too by wrecking families and lives. Contrary to Elizabeth Marquardt, we aren’t “throwing away the key.” Every year hundreds of thousands of prisoners get out. Most of them are nonviolent offenders. I didn’t include it in this graph because it’s not very important to the trend.

    The idea that the policy choice is between prisons and marriage is a lie, frankly. There is no policy that has increased marriage rates, and no evidence that doing so would reduce crime rates.

    FYI, your graph stops in 2000. Since then crime has dropped another 20% while incarceration has leveled off.

  19. Schroeder says:

    Philip Cohen,

    I think everyone here, including Elizabeth, would agree that “The prison craze has done vast damage, mostly to America’s Black and poor folks…” and with everything else that you said in your 7:31 AM comment.

    (Well, except for this: “There is no policy that has increased marriage rates, and no evidence that doing so would reduce crime rates,” which seems pretty clearly false, especially the second part. Quickly, even if the first part is true, that does not at all mean that “there is no policy that can increase marriage rates.” As for the second part, Brad’s response – that “the crime rate would be even lower than it currently is if more children were being raised in intact families” – just seems like common sense to me.)

    In fact, the prison issue is one issue the folks at the Institute seem to care about deeply. (Watch this interview with Glenn Loury at the Center for Public Conversation if you’re not convinced.)

    Maybe you understand that (please let me know if you do!), but the tone of your comment seems to be a tone I normally associate with vehement disagreement; so it’s… confusing.

    Maybe this is related to David’s post about the “fallacy of two,” but I’ve noticed that on this blog people often have heated arguments (like this one) where everyone actually seems to agree on the most relevant issues but is arguing with a falsely pigeonholed version of their interlocutor. It’s kind of funny.

  20. hello says:

    Barry,
    So if your daughter brought home her fiance and told you he’d just gotten out of prison for a “non-violent drug offense”, would you give them your blessing? Or suggest to her that she think long and hard about committing to a man with such problems?

    But you do think “non-violent drug offenders” are good enough for poor minority women. Don’t you see how condescending that is?

  21. Phil says:

    Have you ever heard of a drug dealer who had never been involved in a violent crime?

    Yes; I know several.

    What you’re doing here is an example of the logical fallacy “argument from ignorance.” Basically, you’re saying “because I cannot imagine that XX could be so, XX must not be so.”

  22. So if your daughter brought home her fiance and told you he’d just gotten out of prison for a “non-violent drug offense”, would you give them your blessing? Or suggest to her that she think long and hard about committing to a man with such problems?

    I couldn’t say, because there are a zillion things about him other than “been in prison for a non-violent drug offense” that I’d base my opinion on.

    But certainly, even if my hypothetical daughter was inclined to let her dad veto her fiancee (and I hope no daughter of mine would!), I wouldn’t veto someone based only on his having been convicted for a minor drug offense.

    The difference between a minor drug offender who goes to prison, and one who does not, is often a matter of class, race and luck, not character or justice.

    But you do think “non-violent drug offenders” are good enough for poor minority women. Don’t you see how condescending that is?

    This assumes that you know what I’d answer to the previous question, about my own daughter wanting to marry a convicted non-violent drug offender. Obviously, your assumption about what I would answer was wrong.

    May I suggest that in the future, you actually wait for me to answer your questions, rather than just assuming you know the answers?

  23. [...] to see her sources, except the Harper and McLanahan link, which is dead. Shockingly, Brad Wilcox also provided a dead link to the same quote. I was curious to see it because I would be surprised if any social [...]