Children at the Margins: Poverty, Parental Incarceration, and Delinquency

As folks will discover if you become a regular reader of this blog, I am a parent of two girls, ages ten and twelve.  As you may imagine, given my profession and educational background, my family is extremely privileged — both economically and culturally.  We do not have to worry about having enough food to eat, whether the mortgage, electricity, gas, and water will be paid, whether we can access top notch health care, or whether we will have reliable transportation.  My children have all the benefits of their class status, enjoying private music lessons, sports, summer camps, religious school, pool membership, nice vacations, and other enrichment activities.  Equally important (and unlike both my husband and myself), they are being raised in a stable, two-parent household in which someone is always there to help with homework, to discuss the day’s events, to attend their performances and teachers’ conferences, and to ensure that their lives are defined by structure, consistency, and stability.

Still (and this may be a function of the fact that I was an only-child), I am continually astonished by how much time, attention, and focus children need from their parents.  They are like sponges — more can always be soaked up, whether that “more” comes in the form of talking, hanging out, laughing, playing, reading, or just general engagement with one another.  After twelve years of parenting, I’ve accepted that in order to capture those moments of “quality time” with my kids, of genuinely connecting and hearing each other, first we need quantity — extended and regular periods of being together in a (relatively) stress-free environment.

And yet, as any parent knows, even all of these benefits do not guarantee that my girls — or anyone’s children — will become happy, productive, and valued adult members of their community.  Children of all socioeconomic and familial backgrounds suffer hardships, including illness (both physical and mental), disease, and addiction — as well as misfortune, disappointment, and just plain bad luck.  So, while there are certainly no guarantees, it may at least be said that stable families of means, particularly those with more than one caregiver, can more readily decrease — if not eliminate — the risk factors that contribute to delinquency and criminality.  Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article on the impact of family structure that speaks to some of these concepts.

Given this background, I have been thinking a lot in recent years about how best to stem the tide of low-income children in juvenile court.  In one county in which I practice the majority of kids in juvenile court are African-American, while in the other there is a mix of white and African-American children, but in both jurisdictions the common denominator among the youth and their families is poverty.  I wrote an article last year that examined the structural and institutional causes of the disproportionate representation of low-income children in the juvenile justice system.  In it, I argued that at each stage of the process — from intake through adjudication to disposition and probation — the court gives as much or more weight to the perceived “needs” of the child and her family than to the quality of the evidence against her or the ability of the state to prove its case. The result is that in all but the most serious of cases, children from low-income families do not have to be as “guilty” as those from wealthier families in order to enter and remain in the system, effectively widening the net of court intervention for poor children.  I proposed various reforms, including data collection that records the income of juveniles’ families; raising awareness of what I dubbed, “needs-based delinquency”; and diversion programs that reduce the rate of juvenile court adjudications for minor offenses.

I’m writing a follow-up article on why the vast majority of adult criminal defendants convicted in state court are also low-income, explained at least in part by the negative collateral consequences of having a criminal record in areas such as employment, housing, and public assistance as well as the proliferation of criminal justice fees, fines, and restitution that contribute to their continued impoverishment (and, increasingly, their repeated incarceration).  As a result, I have been reading about the development of what, in essence, are modern-day debtors’ prisons, and the vicious cycle that develops when criminal justice debt policy makes it impossible for those with criminal records to gain an economic foothold.

I’ve also been reviewing social science literature that examines the impact of the criminal justice system on low-income communities.  For instance, empirical studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that incarceration of large numbers of people within a community leads to decay of that community; that community decay perpetuates poverty; and that poverty perpetuates further and continued criminality.  In terms of the family unit, data shows that when one parent is incarcerated, the custodial parent (usually the mother) is at higher risk of mental health issues and economic instability, despite the fact that incarceration may provide a “respite” from a partner who is troubled or violent.  Recent studies have also shown, unsurprisingly, that parental incarceration has a negative impact on child development, contributing to the likelihood of poor school performance, unsupervised free time, decreased contact with adults, suppressed anger, and increased physical aggression — all of which are precursors of delinquency.  So, it is not surprising that many of the children who end up in juvenile court have parents who are incarcerated or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system.

This is all a long way of saying that criminal justice reform is merely one part of the answer to the generational perpetuation of a permanent underclass — or as Professor Michelle Alexander calls it in regard to the impact of mass incarceration on communities of color, the “New Jim Crow.”  Even if jurisdictions adopt a policy of not incarcerating low-level offenders, mandating out-patient substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling, and eliminating all court fees and costs for those without the means to pay, such policy changes alone won’t “solve” this vicious cycle.

In the months to come, I hope to use this space to elaborate on and suggest various strategies for confronting these issues.

Your thoughts?  Your ideas for reform?  Please share in the comments.

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Delinquency, Juveniles, Legal Scholarship, Race, Class, Ethnicity, Rehabilitation, Sentencing, Social science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Children at the Margins: Poverty, Parental Incarceration, and Delinquency

  1. tbirckhe says:

    By the way, here is a wonderful response by Katha Pollitt of The Nation to the NYT article (mentioned above):

    Pollitt takes issue with the Times’ implication that the obvious answer for single moms is to marry men with good salaries who will “solve” all their problems, economic and emotional. It is clearly much more complicated than that, as the single mom portrayed in the article would greatly benefit from national daycare, affordable higher education, and a job that offerred paid leave and a decent wage — regardless of whether she finds a nice man with a good salary to marry.

  2. Drew K says:

    Thanks so much for the link to Pollit’s article. As I was reading the New York Times piece on Sunday morning, I could feel my blood pressure rising. My only complaint about Pollit’s response is that she didn’t directly attack the institution of marriage and DeParle’s implicit acceptance of that institution as necessarily good. (Full disclosure: I worked for Ti-Grace Atkinson for several years, who has argued persuasively that marriage as an institution is bad for both men and women, but particularly bad for women.)

    As far as your general remarks about caring for children/parenting go, there was a great forum in Boston Review ( a few years ago on a somewhat related topic. Nancy Hirschmann made a good point that even with plentiful resources, kids don’t always turn out great, or even acceptable. There were some good ideas bandied about; may be worthwhile to explore.

    • tbirckhe says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Drew. I will definitely check out the Boston Review forum. Good luck next week!

  3. Ola! Tbirckhe,
    This might be off topic, however If someone were to talk about people who live in conditions of poverty, you might expect them to be talking about people who live in developing countries or in a location where a natural disaster has recently occurred. Would you be surprised to learn that over 14 million American children live below the poverty level today? Most people in this country would be shocked to hear that number. Do we simply look at the forest of reasonably well-off people in America and forget to look at the individual trees?
    Nice One!