Mass imprisonment and racial disparities in childhood behavioral problems



Research Summary

This essay provides estimates of the influence of mass imprisonment on racial disparities in childhood well-being. To do so, we integrate results from three existing studies in a novel way. The first two studies use two contemporary, broadly representative data sets to estimate the effects of paternal incarceration on a range of child behavioral and mental health problems. The third study estimates changes in Black–White disparities in the risk of paternal imprisonment across the 1978 and 1990 American birth cohorts. Our research demonstrates the following:

  • 1) The average effect of paternal incarceration on children is harmful, not helpful, and consistently in the direction of more mental health and behavioral problems.
  • 2) The rapid increase in the use of imprisonment coupled with significant racial disparities in the likelihood of paternal (and maternal) imprisonment are linked to large racial disparities in childhood mental health and behavioral problems.
  • 3) We find that mass imprisonment might have increased Black–White inequities in externalizing behaviors by 14–26% and in internalizing behaviors by 25–45%.

Policy Implications

Our results add to a growing research literature indicating that the costs associated with mass imprisonment extend far beyond well-documented impacts on current inmates. The legacy of mass incarceration will be continued and worsening racial disparities in childhood mental health and well-being, educational attainment, and occupational attainment. Moreover, the negative effects of mass imprisonment for childhood well-being are likely to remain, even if incarceration rates returned to pre-1970s levels. Our results show that paternal incarceration exacerbates child behavioral and mental health problems and that large, growing racial disparities in the risk of imprisonment have contributed to significant racial differences in child well-being. The policy implications of our work are as follows:

  • 1) Estimates of the costs associated with the current scale of imprisonment are likely to be severely underestimated because they do not account for the significant indirect effects of mass incarceration for children, for families, and for other social institutions such as the educational system and social service providers.
  • 2) Policies that reduce incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders with no history of domestic violence will most dramatically reduce the effects of mass incarceration on childhood racial inequality. More research is needed to detail other important factors (e.g., crime type, criminal history, or gender of parent) that condition the effect of paternal incarceration on children.
  • 3) Paternal incarceration effects target the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of children and are likely to result in long-term behavioral health problems. We propose a strengthening of the social safety net—especially as it applies to the poorest children—and programs that address the complicated needs of children of incarcerated parents.