A new report from the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation shows how a “family-centric” approach to criminal justice reform can improve reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism.

The report, “A Family-Centered Approach to Criminal Justice,” authored by Christopher Bates, former chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee under longtime Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, draws from decades of research to show how family ties, housing and employment are primary and indispensable elements for successful reentry of the formerly incarcerated. Bates espouses reforms to expand family visitation and bolster social connections between those convicted of crimes and their respective communities, which he believes is necessary to reduce recidivism and stave off intergenerational imprisonment.

The report comes at a time when incarceration rates in America — already the highest of any nation — are straining public resources and eroding communities by taking valuable human capital offline. It’s the latest response to an issue where the foundation says progress has been stymied by rhetoric too narrowly focused on individual subjects — victims and criminals — while ignoring the larger complexities and the unseen victims in the families left behind.

Examples of family-centric reforms to mitigate the harmful impact on children and offset intergenerational impacts include: expanding eligible visiting hours; creating child-friendly areas, with warm decor and toys; eliminating character limitations on email correspondence and allowing photographs to be sent to prisoners; and in some cases allowing overnight stays for family members who must travel long distances.

“What I tried to do with this report is take a lot of sociological research, synthesize it, and show how it teaches us really important things both about how incarceration impacts family members, but also how family members impact those who are in prison. There’s two sides of the coin,” said Bates. “We want to put those two halves together and come up with a unified framework for addressing prison policy comprehensively.”

The Hatch Foundation’s proposed family-centered approach seeks to shift the emphasis in criminal justice from retribution to reentry, suggesting that long-term outcomes, including reduced recidivism and healthy reintegration, can be improved by incorporating “family-centric” reforms, whereby the facilitation of community connectedness yields desirable social outcomes for all of society — especially the children of the incarcerated, who are profoundly and detrimentally impacted, according to research cited in the report.

“One of the most important determinants of successful reentry is the strength of a formerly incarcerated individual’s family ties,” Bates explains. “Social connectedness is the root source of reintegration into society.”

The report paints a picture of prisoners sent hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away from home and held in facilities where even phone calls are rare and expensive. For example, the Hatch Foundation paper explains how many prisons only permit collect calls which can cost family members up to $1.20 per minute. Such practices are cost-prohibitive barriers to many families, leading to greater isolation of the incarcerated, and weakened community ties that increase the statistical likelihood of post-sentence re-offense.

The foundation believes incarceration serves legitimate purposes, including retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation and deterrence. But the report nonetheless argues the prevailing discourse on criminal justice is overly concerned with the punitive elements of justice at the expense of meaningful correction. Instead, the report calls for the reevaluation of sentencing practices and inmate placement policies at the behest of strengthening family ties and their associated advantages for reentry.

Rather than devote ideas and resources to punitive policy, the foundation says, policymakers should worry about reintegration, which Bates believes can be achieved through increased visitation and other family-centric policy, including prisoner placement reform.

One of the biggest barriers to maintaining family ties relates to prison proximity. Inmates are often migrated to prisons hundreds of miles from their families, which makes visitation challenging and accelerates disconnection from communities where sustained engagement is vital to positive social outcomes following emancipation.

One of the report’s most poignant arguments addresses the large population of unseen victims, the “most vulnerable population affected by … incarceration,” the children of those convicted of crimes, who unduly suffer from a host of disadvantageous repercussions. 

There are currently 1.5 million minor children with a parent in prison in the United States, with the average age between 9 and 10 years old. Researchers show that children with a parent in prison are adversely impacted across a range of metrics, from mental and physical health to educational attainment, along with financial instability and increased risk of homelessness.

These impacts diminish social mobility and heighten the statistical likelihood of intergenerational criminal behavior, as children with an incarcerated parent are “on average, six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves,” the report states, citing research from the National Institute of Justice.

The prospect of intergenerational incarceration rings with heightened alarm in light of an already burgeoning national incarceration population that’s caused prison systems to split at the seams.

Bates also argues that family ties are crucial to other determinants of successful reentry —namely, stable housing and employment — and by designing laws and programs to aid, rather than hinder, the employment and housing prospects for the formerly incarcerated society will reap the benefits of reduced recidivism and stave off intergenerational setbacks.

Family and community ties become decisive factors when formerly incarcerated persons exit the prison system. Those ties provide reentrants with the character sponsorship needed for employment, as criminal backgrounds carry weighty stigmas requiring vouchsafes to combat. Research shows that stronger connections between inmates and families corresponds to greater employment opportunities upon release.

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Another key benefit of family-centric incarceration policy relates to housing. Formerly convicted persons face difficulty finding housing due to the discriminatory realities of housing in both public and private sectors, which are liable to deny applications based on criminal background history.  Two-thirds of formerly incarcerated individuals turn to family members for help with housing after release, while those who are unable to find secure housing after release are twice as likely to recidivate, further underscoring the importance of strong family ties.

In states like Utah, some leaders are pursuing “clean slate” policies aimed at expunging criminal records after determined periods of law abiding comportment, which would eliminate criminal convictions as a source of discrimination in housing, but the delayed application of expungements leaves the formerly convicted vulnerable in the initial phases of release leaving family housing an only option for many.

The Hatch Foundation report is compelling not just for offering a pathway to reducing prison populations, and the outsize correction budgets they entail, but also for promoting more humanity in criminal justice and strengthening American families.

“I think this approach can resonate with everybody. Whether you’re on the right or the left, folks recognize the importance of the family. It’s a subject that helps unite people, and so looking at the issue through the lens of family is a way that has the potential to help bring those sides together to find solutions by looking at impacts on, and the impacts of, family members,” Bates said.

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