Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Jailer as Surrogate Father

When you reflect on the tragic reality that 34% of American kids do not live with their biological fathers (that's about 24 million kids), then the following comments are unsettling indeed. They come from Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan in their article, "Father Absence and Youth Incarceration," published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence 14 [2004], pages 369-397.

A young man who does not live under the same roof as his father is quite likely to end up living in the Big House provided by state penal authorities. The alarmingly high likelihood that a fatherless boy will become an incarcerated man recently received much needed attention in a study performed by sociologists from Princeton and the University of California San Francisco. Examining survey data collected between 1979 and 1994 for 2,846 young men, the researchers tracked these youths' social circumstances and behavior from ages 14 to 30. Their statistical analyses clearly show that "youth incarceration risks ... were elevated for adolescents in father-absent households."

The Princeton and California scholars acknowledge that one of the reasons that young males from father-absent homes often go to prison is that they have lived in poverty rarely experienced by peers from intact families. Still, the researchers hasten to point out that "taking into account poverty did not explain all of the association of father absence with incarceration." Even after controlling for household income, for the receipt of child-support payments, and for residential moves, the researchers found that "youths in father-absent families (mother-only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families." Thus, even after statistically accounting for poverty and residential moves, the researchers found that sons in mother-only families were 1.733 times as likely to be incarcerated as peers from mother-father families (p <>Similarly, when the scholars took into account "the individual cognitive ability of the youth" as a predictor of incarceration, their statistical model indicated that "the family structure variables remained virtually the same and were [still] highly significant predictors of incarceration."

Of course, a boy's father may be absent from the home for different reasons-and with somewhat different consequences. The authors of the new study report that "children born to single mothers, who never had a father in the household, faced relatively higher incarceration odds than a child who experienced disruptions later in childhood or adolescence." In the simplest statistical model, the researchers thus find that boys who are fatherless from birth are 3.061 times as likely to go to jail as peers from intact families, while boys who do not see their father depart until they are 10 to 14 years old are only 2.396 times as likely to go to jail as peers from intact families.

Contrary to the acknowledged expectations of the researchers, however, the remarriage of a divorced mother did not reduce the likelihood that her son would spend time in jail. On the contrary, "youths in stepparent households faced incarceration odds almost 3 times as high as those in mother-father families, and significantly higher than those in single-parent households, even though step families were relatively well off on average." It would appear that so long as the nation's divorce lawyers do a brisk business, so too will the country's contractors for building prisons.