National Public Radio’s Tell Me More recently featured a discussion on a surprising trend in the US criminal justice system – the number of offenders under adult correctional supervision has begun to decline. While the incarceration rate in 2010 was still about seven times the average in Western Europe, the number under court supervision dropped by 1.3 percent. Experts attribute the decline to a realization among policymakers that there are more effective and affordable ways to treat nonviolent offenders.
About 2.7 million people under age 18, representing about 1 in 28 children in the US, had a parent in jail or prison in 2010, according to a Pew Research study. As noted in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families, in many cases there are negative outcomes for families when parents are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. Formerly incarcerated fathers have lower earnings, are less likely to work, and are more likely to experience homelessness. Their children are more likely to face material hardship and residential moves, have contact with the foster care system, show aggressive behavior, and are less likely to live with both biological parents. Findings suggest that these negative effects extend beyond parent-child separation and are limited to families who don’t report domestic violence, suggesting that incarceration may have positive outcomes where domestic violence has occurred.
As state budgets face continual strains, finding new ways to treat nonviolent offenders may be a winning solution for both states and families. However, all new strategies must be carefully examined before implementation.
In the Future of Children Fragile Families volume, researchers argue that any proposed reform should first be assessed in terms of its consequences for families. Intensive community supervision is recommended, along with drug treatment where necessary, and a system that allows for a timely response to probation and parole violations without a disproportionately severe prison time. For reducing the risk of returning to prison, the volume recommends reentry programs to provide transitional services for education and training, medical treatment, housing, and job placement. Research links such programs to lower recidivism and improved employment for ex-prisoners. For more discussion on alternatives to incarceration and policy recommendations to reduce recidivism, see the Future of Children’s issues on Juvenile Justice, the Transition to Adulthood, and Fragile Families.