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A Study on Criminal Parents and Their Children

In writing my review of John Pfaff's anti-incarceration book Locked In, I was particularly struck by his argument that the absence of the incarcerated, criminal parent from the household was bad for the children and therefore an unaccounted-for cost to society.

This seemed to me to be a bad case of "Can't See the Trees for the Forest Syndrome," i.e., the fallacy of finding a fact that is true for the average of a group and assuming it is true for every member of the group.
From the review:

Pfaff simply assumes that the incarcerated parents would remain in their children's lives and that their influence would be positive. Yet he established earlier in the book that the notion of large numbers of low-level, nonviolent offenders is a myth, so we are talking mostly about parents who have committed serious crimes of violence. Pfaff offers no support at all for his assumption that these violent men (mostly) would be good fathers. I think of Huckleberry Finn. Huck suffered from the lack of a caring, nurturing, supportive parent, but he suffered a lot more when the drunken, abusive father he actually had showed up.
Now we have a new empirical study on the question. Evan MacDonald reports for cleveland.com:

Conventional wisdom has long held that a parent's incarceration could have negative short- and long-term effects on a child's development. New research based on data from Ohio's three largest cities concludes that, in certain cases, a child could benefit from a jailed parent.

In certain criminal cases, a judge might decide between sentencing a criminal defendant to jail or prison, or doling out a punishment that does not include incarceration. The study concludes that in those cases, a judge's decision to impose incarceration could increase a child's long-term financial prospects, and decrease the likelihood that child themselves might end up in jail someday.

"The Effects of Parental and Sibling Incarceration: Evidence from Ohio," a study released Thursday by three university researchers uses data from Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati to measure outcomes for the children of criminal defendants.
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"We're not saying incarceration is going to be positive for every child. What we're estimating is the effect of defendants who are on the bubble of being incarcerated," [study co-author U. Chi. Prof. Sam] Norris said. "I think this is an important group to study because it's the group most likely to be effected by any [criminal-justice] reforms."
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"We expected that [the data] would make incarceration look worse, and that children would be harmed in a bunch of ways by their parents being incarcerated. But it turns out that's not true," he said.

Kudos to the authors for going where their data leads them, not what they expected to find or the result that Political Correctness dictates. There is a substantial amount of professional peril in going against the PC grain. Remember the econometric experts who studied death penalty deterrence? Remember the academics who pointed out that internalizing traditional middle-class values, or not, has a great deal to do with whether people end up poor or incarcerated? Let us hope that the debate that will surely follow this study is a respectful discussion of the merits and not an attack on the researchers.

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