As I’m sure you’re probably aware, the United States puts more people in prison than any other country in the world. But what isn’t well known is how having a family member in prison can affect the immediate family members. In fact, a new study revealed that 45% of all Americans have had a close family member sent to jail at some point. I can’t decide if I think this is a high, low or “normal” number. Mostly because I think that why people are put in jail in the United States is ridiculous. More specifically, I think the laws are ridiculous, and the criminal justice system could use a major overhaul in this regard.
A new study that was published this week in the science journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World opens with a rather straightforward question: what percentage of Americans have ever had a family member incarcerated? In this context, it’s a very valid question, but like I said – the outcome is horrendous. Statistics suggest that over 2 million Americans are in jail at any point in time, which means for every 100,000 people living in the U.S., 714 of them are in jail.
The research is being led by sociologist Peter Enns from Cornell University, and the goal was to quantify the mass incarceration rates in the U.S., but in terms of immediate family members involved. More specifically – fathers, mothers, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children. This research is considered to be the most thorough of its kind to date, and it suggests that 45% of U.S. residents have had a close family member jailed or imprisoned for one night or more. While I’m not trying to normalize any of this, but I wonder what it means to spend one night in jail actually means? Further statistics suggest that these numbers increase for African-Americans and individuals with lower levels of education.
Overall, 45 percent of U.S. residents surveyed said they have had an immediate family member put in jail or incarcerated. Among African Americans individuals, this figure was considerably higher and closer to 63 percent. For Hispanic people, it was 48 percent and for white people, it was 42 percent. Around 60 percent of individuals who didn’t complete high school had an immediate family member incarcerated, regardless of ethnicity. Siblings were the most common type of family member to be incarcerated, an unexpected result that will require further research.
When it comes to college-educated white people, family incarceration was about 15%. As the level of education increased, the change of a white person having a family member incarcerated decrease. But that wasn’t the case for African Americans. Regardless of education, their chances of incarceration remained at the same rate. Around 70 percent of African Americans who didn’t complete high school had a family member incarcerated, a figure that crept up marginally to 71 percent for African Americans who had finished high school.
What does all this mean? Not only does this suggest that law enforcement and prosecutors are overly zealous when it comes to incarcerating people, and it demonstrates the racial divide within the system. In addition, it suggests that this high rate of incarceration has a major impact on the family members of people that are being put in jail. I certainly hope this kind of research is used to help reform the criminal justice system, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.