Research reveals that many prisoners return home in need of help to reintegrate into their community and into their families. They lack the proper means to reconnect with family members, acquire housing and jobs, and overcome substance abuse and other health problems. Even worse, ex-offenders are increasingly returning to neighborhoods that are plagued with concentrated social and economic disadvantage. Landing in such communities post-release exacerbates the challenges of reentry and increases the odds of recidivating.
Families are an important source of housing, emotional support, financial resources, and overall stability for returning prisoners, and as such, they play a critical role in the successful reentry of individuals from prison to the community. HHS has a role in ameliorating the effects of incarceration on family formation and functioning, thereby increasing the support that an ex-offender has when he/she returns to the community. The Department’s special focus on vulnerable children and families also extends its responsibility to families and communities experiencing distress because of disproportionately high rates of incarceration in poor and minority communities. Family instability, along with poverty, drive the need for many HHS program services, and incarceration is likely to play a direct role for some programs.
Of special concern to HHS are the nearly 7.5 million children, more than 10 percent of children under age 18, who have a parent who is currently incarcerated or on probation or parole (Mumloa, 2006). These children are disproportionately minority and poor (Glaze and Muruschak, 2008). Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman (2009) estimate that among children born since 1990, four percent of whites and 25 percent of blacks will witness their father being sent to prison by their fourteenth birthday. In 2008, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, Joseph Murray and David Farrington published the results of a Campbell Collaborative Systematic Review of evidenced-based research entitled the Effects of Parental Imprisonment on Child Antisocial Behavior and Mental Health. Reviewing the most rigorously conducted research on the effects of parental incarceration, they found that children of prisoners have about three times the risk of antisocial behavior compared to their peers. Additionally, Steven Raphael (2010) notes that the lifetime likelihood of serving prison time for a black male child born in 2001 stands at 32 percent; whereas, for Hispanic males, the lifetime risk is 17.2 percent, and for white males that risk is six percent.
Over half of parents in prison (40 percent of mothers and 58 percent of fathers) indicated that they were not living with any of their children prior to incarceration, making it highly likely that many parents in prison have child support issues that need to be resolved (Glaze and Maruschak 2008). The Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) has made resolving child support issues for incarcerated noncustodial parents a priority for its discretionary grant funding. Since FY 2000, OCSE funded over a dozen projects that involve collaborations among child support agencies, Departments of Corrections and community-based organizations. The grants provide child support services to individuals participating in the Prisoner Reentry Initiative (PRI), which is administered by the Departments of Justice and Labor (DOJ and DOL).
Incarceration severely affects intimate relationships, including those with partners and children, by creating barriers to intimacy, family involvement, and economic contributions. Western (2004) documents that incarceration affects family formation. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, he found that formerly incarcerated men are just as likely to have children as other men of the same age; however, they are less likely to marry and those who do are more likely to separate and divorce. In exploratory work, Eirik Evenhouse and Siobhan Reilly (2010) found a positive correlation over time and across Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), between the probability that a mother has had children by more than one man and the lagged arrest rate in her MSA. The correlation is stronger among racial and educational subgroups that experience higher rates of multiple-father fertility. Both poverty and incarceration are factors likely contributing to this finding.
The Office of Family Assistance (OFA), through its Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood discretionary grant program, has funded 27 projects that provide parenting and family strengthening services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated fathers and their partners. Some of these grants provide support to increase economic stability, including financial literacy. Twelve of the grant projects are part of a rigorous implementation and impact evaluation managed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) to determine the effect of family strengthening services on family functioning, recidivism and employment outcomes. The implementation evaluation will be released in the late early fall of 2011. Briefs highlighting interim findings will be published periodically leading up to the release of the final impact study report in 2014.
Social and Economic Disadvantage
Empirical evidence shows that most individuals released from prison will return there for new crimes or technical violations within three years of being released (Langan and Levin, 2002). What results, then, is a cycle of removal and return in communities with already large concentrations of social and economic disadvantage. Generally, this phenomenon occurs in poor, predominately minority communities with low levels of educational attainment. The churning population of offenders into and out of the community severely affects the families left behind and the public health of the community at large. Such communities characteristically are areas plagued with high unemployment, staggering crime rates, high rates of substance abuse and mental illness; and a prevalence of fragile families.
In a one state study of families on Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF), Kirby, Fraker, Pavetti and Kovac (2003) found that more than one in every three TANF clients (36 percent) had been arrested during the previous six years, and nearly one in every five TANF clients (18 percent) has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Arrest and conviction are considered potential liabilities to increasing family economic stability through employment. The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in New York City supports an employment program for former prisoners that aims to reduce recidivism through steady employment. It is part of the Enhanced Services for the Hard-to-Employ Demonstration and Evaluation project, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) and ASPE with additional funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. Interim results from MDRC’s rigorous impact evaluation of CEO show reduced recidivism in both the first and the second year of follow-up among former prisoners considered to be at highest risk of recidivism (Zweig, Yahner, and Redcross, 2010).