As grown up as I felt at nine, whenever my parents let me walk to school, the corner store or Prospect Park with friends, I’d have been lying through my teeth if I denied sometimes feeling afraid — even in the little slice of Brooklyn I called home. But it wasn’t the New York Police Department or endemic racism that made me anxious. In the 1990s, getting mugged or beaten up in my own neighborhood always felt like more than a remote possibility. That sense of wariness was dull and could easily be forgotten if I was distracted. But it was always there, just under the surface.

That anxiety disappeared when we moved to a mostly white town in suburban Long Island. At school, no one looked like me. And as a half Dominican, half Puerto Rican kid with, uh, different hair, “the new kid from Brooklyn” got teased a bit — even racially taunted on occasion. It was a heartbreaking transition in 1996: I hadn’t wanted to leave our two-bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway, between Church and Caton. I didn’t care that my sister and I would have our own rooms and even a swimming pool in the backyard. And as much as I loved baseball, I was unmoved by the fact that Nassau County’s Little League fields were in far better condition than the Parade Ground’s fields near Prospect Park.

While I wasn’t thrilled about my new life in the burbs, I quickly learned that I could ride my brand-new chrome GT Dyno without even the slightest hint of fear that someone might snatch it out from under me. Eventually, I grew to both understand and appreciate the decision my parents made to move my sister and me out to what they felt would be a safer, more nurturing environment. I also grew to realize that I was a fortunate beneficiary of an incredible privilege: Being born to parents that, albeit by the skin of their teeth, could afford to leave a high crime city for a low-crime suburb meant that I could live my most formative years in a place where violent crime just wasn’t something people worried about.

The idea that criminal justice policy should keep criminal offenders involved in the lives of their families rests on an unproven assumption.

Decades later, I would make the same decision for my son: In the months before he was born, my wife and I often found ourselves discussing the quality of life in our slowly gentrifying East Harlem neighborhood, which at the time was getting harder and harder to imagine pushing a baby stroller through. So we decided to move farther away from our workplaces to the safer, cleaner neighborhood of Forest Hills, where our family was far less likely to encounter the sort of crime and disorder we’d seen in East Harlem.

Though things in Harlem weren’t anywhere close to as bad as they were in mid-1990s Brooklyn, I found myself thinking again about my family’s move to Long Island and the reasons behind it. I also found myself thinking about how many families living in neighborhoods far more dangerous than the one I moved away from have no choice but to stick it out. Whatever that number was, it was too high.

I think a lot about policing and criminal justice; I’m the head of research for the Policing and Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute. I am also the son of an NYPD detective who worked in Brooklyn’s Robbery Squad. His experiences on the job were, in many ways, an extension of the mess he had grown up in while being raised by a single mom in the (now highly desirable) neighborhood he always derisively yet affectionately referred to as “Park Slop — I mean — Slope.” My father saw a historic drop in crime under William “Bill” Bratton, New York City’s police commissioner in the 1990s, but our proximity to some of Brooklyn’s worst neighborhoods was enough to sustain a real fear of crime despite the progress.

As much as my childhood and upbringing inform my work, I make a point of relying on data, not anecdotal examples or emotional arguments. All of which has led me to conclude that the dominant narratives about criminal justice are wrong. 

There is one narrative in particular that has dominated the public discourse the last few years, namely that the United States can aptly be described as an oppressive carceral state that has expelled justice from every corner and crevice of its law enforcement apparatus. More specifically, the U.S. is said to be in the midst of an “over” or “mass” incarceration crisis driven by unjustifiably aggressive overpolicing, unduly “coercive” overprosecution, and racism directed primarily at Black and Latino people living in the poorer, “underserved” neighborhoods in and around America’s cities.

Such criticisms have been leveled at this country’s criminal justice system for at least half a century. But a growing chorus of professional advocates are forcefully pushing this dangerously false narrative further into the mainstream.

As a result, we are on the cusp of a generational shift in how our society approaches the core government duty of securing the public against criminal violence, theft and disorder.

Back in 1983, on the PBS show “Firing Line,” Thomas Sowell said the following to the show’s original host, William F. Buckley, during a discussion about his brilliant book “The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective”: “If you are born into … a family, where there are certain values — and particularly if they are families that really insist upon those values, where it’s not a matter of doing your own thing — then you will grow up with those values; and you will have whatever the benefits that happen to come along with those values.”

My reading of the available evidence led me to conclude some years ago that he was exactly right. In that “Firing Line” segment, Sowell was talking specifically about the values, attitudes and behaviors associated with economic and social advancement. But what if his argument also holds true as to values, attitudes and behaviors associated with all manner of observable phenomena, including economic and social decline?

In other words, if the prosocial behaviors typically engaged in by the family someone is born into will almost certainly be engaged in by that person, it stands to reason that a family in which antisocial behaviors are engaged in at high rates will be more likely to fail to properly socialize the children within it, increasing the likelihood that those children will become antisocial adults.

One of the most rhetorically potent arguments in favor of drastically cutting incarceration is that incarceration deprives families — particularly children — of the economic and emotional support of the parent(s) or sibling(s) removed from their homes or everyday lives.

Jon Krause for Deseret News

In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, many of the Democratic Party candidates echoed that sentiment. Then-candidate Joe Biden suggested allowing “nonviolent offenders who are primary care providers for their children to serve their sentences through in-home monitoring.”

Understandably, arguments about the potential effects of parental incarceration on children have resonated with some Republicans and conservative-leaning thinkers too. In a 2015 speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation, Republican Sen. Mike Lee observed that “a majority of prisoners are also parents — most of whom lived with their minor children before they were arrested or incarcerated.” He found fault with a “penitentiary approach to punishment” that “severs the offenders’ ties to their family.” Writing in a National Affairs piece titled “The Conservative Case for Jail Reform,” Arthur Rizer (then the R Street Institute’s director of criminal justice) noted that “incarceration separates offenders from their families, which increases rates of homelessness and single parenthood.”

“Approximately 17 million children are currently being raised without a father, a growing social problem that only perpetuates cycles of violence and crime,” Rizer wrote.

These ideas are also subscribed to by some who operate much closer to America’s criminal justice system than pundits and federal lawmakers — indeed, by many working at the very center of the system. Brooklyn District Attorney and self-styled “progressive prosecutor” Eric Gonzalez assured Brooklynites in a document laying out his office’s Justice 2020 initiative that his approach would reflect his belief that incarceration has “had the effect of destabilizing families.”

And yet, as hard as it may be for some to read, the idea that criminal justice policy should by default aim to keep criminal offenders involved in the everyday lives of their families rests on a yet unproven assumption: that the sort of people who tend to find themselves behind bars by and large are (or can be) good parents — that is, reliable sources of economic and emotional support whose presence in a child’s life produces benefits that outweigh the costs of that parent’s absence.

We are on the cusp of a generational shift in how our society approaches the core government duty of securing the public against criminal violence, theft and disorder.

The evidentiary basis for this assumption is shaky. In fact, considerable evidence suggests that the struggles of children whose parents get incarcerated — whether in school or in other areas of their lives — have less to do with their parents being incarcerated than with the underlying behavioral patterns that led to the incarceration. If that’s true, then decarceration motivated by concerns about parental separation might turn out to be a move with serious unintended consequences that actually end up hurting the very children reformers say they’re trying to help.

Think of it this way: Being raised by both Philip and Vivian Banks — the model parents played by James Avery and Janet Hubert (and later Daphne Maxwell Reid) on the 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — would be clearly ideal for most kids. Falling far short of that ideal would be a virtual certainty if you replaced Philip Banks with, say, Tony Soprano — the ruthless, narcissistic gangster at the center of HBO’s hit series “The Sopranos.” In other words, are the reform advocates correct to assume that, on net, the presence of even a criminal parent is beneficial enough for their children that the presumption of judges and prosecutors ought to be against that parent’s incarceration?

Whether a parent’s presence in a child’s life is beneficial seems heavily dependent on whether that parent engages in high levels of antisocial behavior — behaviors generally reflecting, among other things, a failure to conform to social norms, deceitfulness, impulsivity, reckless disregard for others, high levels of irritability and aggressiveness, and remorselessness in the wake of misbehavior. The literature on the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior suggests that the presence of parents who engage in such behavior may be even worse for a child than the absence of a pro-social parent. “Fathers’ antisocial behaviors predicted growth in children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, with links stronger among resident-father families,” according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. These results, the study’s authors warned, “suggest caution in policies and programs which seek to universally increase marriage or father involvement without attention to fathers’ behaviors.”

That finding squares with earlier work led by Sara Jaffee, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of a paper published in the journal Child Development, which found that the “quality of a father’s involvement matters more than his mere presence,” and that children who live with fathers who “engage in very high levels of antisocial behavior” will go on to behave “significantly worse” than “their peers whose fathers also engage in high levels of antisocial behavior but do not reside with their children.” Jaffee and her co-authors added that the “advantages of growing up in a two-parent family may be negated when one or both parents are characterized by a history of antisocial behavior.”

This makes perfect sense and probably strikes most people who take a few moments to think about it as intuitively obvious. Intuitive as it may be once you’ve heard it explained, the logical appeal of this idea escapes many.

Exposure to highly antisocial parents increases the likelihood that a child will develop serious conduct problems, which, according to Jaffee and her co-authors, “are the strongest predictor of a range of adverse outcomes in adolescence and adulthood … including school dropout, teen childbearing, crime and unemployment.” As researchers Zachary Torry and Stephen Billick put it in a research paper published in Psychiatric Quarterly, antisocial parents can damage “a child’s emotional, cognitive, and social development” and leave them “traumatized, empty, and incapable of forming meaningful personal relationships.” Such exposure seems to also be criminogenic for children — that is, it increases the likelihood that they’ll later engage in criminal behavior, feeding an all-too-visible cycle of crime and violence plaguing so many of the country’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Consider a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which looked at 227 sets of identical twins and found that “the twin who received harsher parenting had higher aggression and more (callous unemotional) traits,” and that “the twin receiving warmer parenting evidenced lower (callous unemotional) traits.” This is important insofar as it responds to the argument that such behavioral disorders in children are driven mostly by genetics.

While genes obviously play a role (as they do in so many aspects of life), the evidence seems to overwhelmingly support the conclusion that the environment can both mitigate and exacerbate the risks posed by children predisposed toward aggression. A paper published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology in 2000 strongly linked physically aggressive parenting with childhood aggression. The paper went on to suggest that parenting practices were predictive of “oppositional and aggressive behavior problems.” And the predictiveness of parenting practices, according to the study, “were fairly consistent across ethnic groups and sex.”

The next question, then, is whether there’s significant overlap between the kinds of men who engage in high levels of antisocial behavior and those who often find themselves behind bars. The answer appears to be a resounding yes. As Jaffee and her co-authors observe, “high-antisocial fathers were significantly more likely to meet” the criterion for a clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). And ASPD, it turns out, has long been common among prison inmates. 

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, parental incarceration has beneficial effects on children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points.”

According to a 2002 article in The Lancet, nearly half of just under 19,000 male prisoners surveyed across 12 countries had ASPD. That survey found that prisoners were “about ten times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than the general population” — an estimate that might understate the prevalence. A 2016 article in Translational Psychiatry noted that while only between 1 and 3 percent of the general public have ASPD, the disorder has a prevalence of “40-70 percent in prison populations.”

An interesting thread in the research on ASPD among prisoners is the prevalence of comorbidity with — that is, the simultaneous presence of — substance use disorders. A study published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry found that “offenders with ASPD are much more likely to have other types of mental illness,” including high rates of substance use. Moreover, offenders with ASPD and comorbid substance abuse disorders seem to have worse outcomes than offenders with only ASPD.

A Spanish study suggests that inmates with both ASPD and a substance abuse disorder exhibit a “tendency to carry out more aggressive crimes.” A 2008 study of patients making threats against others found that the “highest risks (for subsequent violence) were in substance misusers.” Another notes that psychiatric patients with “various personality disorders and comorbid substance abuse … represent a high risk group for violence within forensic psychiatric facilities, and repetitive violent behavior in the community.”

What makes these findings so important is that drug offenders (especially users) have been such a keen focus of anti-incarceration reformers, who argue that responding to addiction and its outgrowths through the criminal justice system is wrong. A 2016 report titled “The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States” by Human Rights Watch “recount(ed) how harmful the long-term consequences of incarceration and a criminal record that follow a conviction for drug possession can be.” First among the harms listed was “separating parents from young children.” What the paper doesn’t seem to consider is the possibility that separating young children from at least some drug offenders can help children more than it hurts them.

So far, I’ve highlighted evidence that exposure to highly antisocial fathers is extremely detrimental for children and associated with a host of negative life outcomes, from the development of behavioral disorders and other psychological problems to poor educational outcomes and criminality in later life. I’ve highlighted studies showing that ASPD is very common in carceral settings and that when ASPD is accompanied by a substance use disorder, the mix can be especially dangerous. All of this makes for a pretty good reason to be suspicious of the claim that incarceration should be universally assumed to be detrimental for the children of those placed in the state’s custody. What makes that suspicion even stronger, however, is a developing body of research testing this very question.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom,” according to a 2021 paper published in the American Economic Review, “parental incarceration has beneficial effects on children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult socioeconomic status.” The authors also found that “sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.” The paper, “The Effects of Parental and Sibling Incarceration: Evidence from Ohio,” was co-authored by researchers at the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California. They studied a sample of children with parents on the margins of incarceration — that is, whether they were incarcerated depended heavily on the leniency or severity of the judges handling their cases. They measured not only the life-outcome differences between the children with incarcerated parents or siblings and those without, but also the portion of those differences attributable to the incarcerations.

The authors highlight several potential explanations for why children might benefit from a family member’s incarceration, which differed depending on whether the incarcerated family member was a parent or a sibling. The study found that the benefits of parental incarceration for children owed less to the parent’s removal than to the deterrent effect on the child of witnessing the levying of criminal sanctions firsthand. That finding could, however, reflect that the parents in the sample were mostly facing lower-level drug and property offenses; the removal effect — that is, the impact attributable to the parent’s absence — in cases involving more serious criminal conduct could be more pronounced.

Contrasted with the effects of parental incarceration, the positive effects of a sibling’s incarceration were “concentrated almost exclusively in the short term” — that is, “while the sibling is still incarcerated.” This, the authors noted, “reflects that the removal of a criminogenic influence — as opposed to deterrence — is the more important mechanism (in cases of sibling incarceration), potentially because siblings can strongly influence one another towards or away from criminal activity.”

“Removing negative potential role models through incarceration benefits children — particularly in terms of their performance and behavior at school.”

These findings resemble those from other studies done in the United States and elsewhere. In a study of incarcerated parents in North Carolina, University of Colorado professor Stephen Billings found that “removing negative potential role models through incarceration benefits children” — particularly in terms of their performance and behavior at school. A paper looking at data out of Norway estimated “a 32-percentage point reduction over a four year period in the probability a younger brother will be charged with a crime if his older brother is incarcerated.” In a 2018 study of incarceration in Colombia, economist Carolina Arteaga found that “conditional on conviction, parental incarceration increases years of education by 0.8 years for children whose parents are on the margin of incarceration.”

And while the apparent psychological effects of antisocial and criminal parents on children’s life outcomes are compelling, we should remember that sometimes the system’s failure to separate a criminal parent from their children can lead to physical harm due to both abuse and neglect. 

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At the very least, the research outlined in this essay undermines the assumptions of those who oppose parental incarceration, insisting that it causes harm to the children of criminal parents. Yet mass decarceration advocates seem as resolute as ever. Indeed, when the study of parental incarceration in Ohio was published in the American Economic Review in the spring of 2021, it caused what Bloomberg opinion writer Noah Smith described as “a torrent of negative reactions” from academics and the broader Twitterverse. According to some of them, ethical considerations should outweigh whatever benefits might attend the publication of findings that undermine the push for decarceration.

But this is the sort of disposition at the root of much of the criminal injustices American cities have seen more and more of in the last few years — that is, at the root of the countless examples of innocents paying for the second, third and 15th chances of offenders with their lives. Unless they are stood up to, a more moderate approach will be hard to implement — which could very well mean, perhaps ironically, that more children will suffer more than they otherwise would have.  

Rafael A. Mangual is head of research for the Policing and Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute. This essay is an excerpt from his book “Criminal (In)Justice,” published by Center Street, Hachette Book Group Inc., copyright 2022.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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