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New Study Finds Mass Incarceration Impacts Over Half of U.S. Families

by Steve Horn

new survey-based report published by a multi-university team of researchers, predominantly from Cornell University and, a group of advocates for criminal justice and immigration reform, has revealed that over half of all families in the United States have been impacted by mass incarceration.

Titled “Every Second: The Impact of the Incarceration Crisis on America’s Families,” the study, released in December 2018, paints one of the most comprehensive pictures to date of the far-reaching impact of our nation’s criminal justice system. The trend lines are even more dire for people of color. 

The report reveals some startling realities, including:

• The total number of people who have ever had an immediate family member incarcerated was an estimated 113 million, according to the study – about one in every two adults in the U.S. Around 6.5 million people “have an immediate family member currently incarcerated in jail or prison (1 in 38).”

• 64 percent of U.S. adults have had an immediate or extended family member incarcerated in jail or prison. Among them, 25 percent had a sibling incarcerated, 20 percent had a parent incarcerated, 12.5 percent had a child incarcerated and over 14 percent had a spouse or co-parent who served time behind bars.

• For people of color, African-American adults are 50 percent more likely than white adults to have had an immediate family member incarcerated, while Latino adults are 70 percent more likely to have had a family member behind bars than whites.

• Poverty is also a major indicator of a familial tie to the criminal justice system. The report found that adults with income of less than $25,000 per year are “61 percent more likely than adults with household incomes more than $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated, and three times more likely to have had a family member incarcerated for one year or longer.”

The report was based on representative sample surveys conducted in summer 2018 by the team of researchers who produced the study. That sample size of 4,041 adults consisted of people age 18 or older who spoke either English or Spanish.

The report laid out more than numbers and figures, however, also pointing to the real-life impact of mass incarceration in the United States.

“The decision to send a person to jail or prison affects the immediate family in myriad ways. On everything from household income to physical and mental health to school outcomes, and even future contact with the criminal justice system, studies have shown that incarceration has a negative impact on family outcomes,” the report explained. “Even short periods of incarceration can make it impossible for people to maintain employment, make rent or mortgage payments, or fulfill family obligations such as child support. This punishes not just the individual, but any family members who rely on their income for financial security.”

A more in-depth, academic version of the report, titled “What Percentage of Americans Have Ever Had a Family Member Incarcerated? Evidence from the Family History of Incarceration Survey,” is posted on the website of one of the co-authors, Cornell University Department of Government professor Peter Enns. Enns authored the 2016 book, Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World.

Todd Schulte, president of and a former Obama administration official, summed up the importance of the study’s conclusions in a press release disseminated with the report.

“These new findings bring to light the staggering scale of the United States’ incarceration crisis, as nearly 1 in 2 American adults has an immediate family member who is currently or has previously spent time behind bars,” he said. “This research corroborates what too many families have known for too long: our current criminal justice system is harming our economy, communities, and families and undermining the promise of what America can and should be.” 



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