Research News

Mass Incarceration's Enduring Consequences

IPR associate John Hagan studies what happens to children of the incarcerated

Between 1986 and 2000, the number of children with incarcerated parents increased nearly threefold.

A woman commits a nonviolent drug offense and receives a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. When she finally emerges from her cell, her life will go on—but the consequences of those 10 years will continue to reverberate far beyond her experiences alone. Why? Because this woman is not just a prisoner: She is also a mother.

Between 1986 and 2000, the number of children with incarcerated parents increased nearly threefold. Sociologist, legal scholar, and IPR associate John Hagan and Texas A&M’s Holly Foster showcase how mandatory minimums led to the 1980s “prison boom” and more prison time for parents. They are also among the first to document the cascading effects of parental jail time on young adults who came of age during the Great Recession.

John Hagan

Drawing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers find children of incarcerated parents were more likely to experience “deprivation,” such as being unable to pay their phone bills, mortgages or rent, utilities, and even for their groceries as adults. In particular, the double whammy of the Great Recession and an incarcerated parent conspired to restrict these adults’ access to needed resources, and exclude them from society.

Education, the researchers find, is the most significant policy antidote to the pernicious effects of having an incarcerated parent: Those who went on to receive a bachelor’s degree were two-thirds less likely to experience deprivation than those without one.

The adults studied suffered deprivation because of a “consequential shift” in incarceration policy, Hagan wrote.

“From the days of the beginnings of this country up until the 1980s, judges had a very high level of discretion in sentencing. They often would consider children, particularly in sentencing women,” he said. But the rise of mandatory minimum guidelines did away with this.

If judges “had taken parenting into account, we probably would not have gone so deeply into mass incarceration in the way we have,” Hagan continued. “One of the reforms, I think, that will come out of the efforts to finally reduce incarceration levels will involve looking at the situation of women and their children a lot more carefully.”

Hagan recently received a National Science Foundation grant to continue this work, studying how children of incarcerated parents react when their parents get out of prison.

“There is reason to be hopeful,” he said. But “there is also reason to understand that these problems are going to be with us for a long time.” 

John Hagan is John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law and an IPR associate. The article is forthcoming in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences.


Photo credit: Erika Wittlieb