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John Hagan and Holly Foster

Abstracted from: John Hagan and Holly Foster, Children of the American Prison Generation: Student and School Spillover Effects of Incarcerating Mothers, 46 Law and Society Review 37 (March, 2012).


This article reports on the educational consequences for children of imprisoning their own mothers and fathers as well as the mothers and fathers of other children in the schools they attend. Thus we are concerned not only with individual sources of student variation in educational outcomes, but also with how the spillover effect of the highly concentrated increase in the imprisonment of parents in some school settings may disadvantage students in progressing to higher levels of educational attainment. These student and school effects can impose long-lasting social costs.

Several of the damaging predictions at the outset of this article are confirmed. The first is that the negative effect of imprisoning mothers is notably larger than that of imprisoning fathers in four of six comparisons of children's educational outcomes, although in a fifth comparison the effects have about the same size and significance, while paternal effects are marginally bigger in a sixth comparison. The effects of maternal imprisonment are especially clear and persistent at the individual student level, which is consistent with the assumption that mothers have a primary influence on their own children. However, the second confirmed prediction is that there is a further negative spillover effect on children's educational outcomes of incarcerating mothers in all three cases, as well as of imprisoning fathers in two of three cases--even when the mothers and fathers are not the children's own. The third confirmed prediction is that the threshold of the spillover impact of maternal imprisonment on children's educational outcomes is lower than that of paternal imprisonment. The fourth is that all these effects are highly consequential for the important educational outcome of college graduation.

College graduation is increasingly the educational credential that is most consequential for the occupational and therefore socioeconomic success of Americans who are entering and advancing through the labor market today. Absence of a college degree is an increasingly consequential barrier to upward mobility in American society. We have seen that the children of mothers who are imprisoned relatively rarely graduate from college. We have further seen that even attending a school where relatively few mothers are imprisoned notably reduces the likelihood that the children of other mothers will graduate from college. When as few as 6 percent of the mothers in a school are imprisoned, the overall rate of graduation for other children in the school is reduced from about 40 to 30 percent, and when 10 percent of the mothers in a school are imprisoned, the graduation rate is reduced to about 25 percent.

The legislation of federal and state sentencing guidelines in the 1980s, which radically reduced the discretion that previously allowed judges to take children into account in imposing less severe sentences for mothers, is a relatively new development. This change overturned more than two centuries of judicial autonomy in the United States. The current sentencing guidelines leave judges less room to consider women's family responsibilities or the social capital they provide their families and communities as mitigating factors that would encourage probation as an alternative to prison. These guidelines were a significant part of a tough on crime, law-and-order era that increased imprisonment of women and mothers. We did not find significant interactions between race and parental imprisonment effects: when black and white mothers come before the courts and are imprisoned, their children are about equally likely to experience diminished educational outcomes. Nonetheless, black women are disproportionately arrested and brought to these courts, and their children are therefore far more affected overall.

We have demonstrated the harmful consequences in terms of educational detainment associated with maternal incarceration. As the intergenerational consequences unfold for the children of the prison generation, it becomes possible and potentially important to map these outcomes back onto their exclusionary origins in a shortsighted regime of increased imprisonment. The analysis presented in this article investigates sources of both individual-level and spillover effects on intergenerational educational outcomes of children of incarcerated parents and children in schools with elevated numbers of incarcerated parents. We found strong evidence that the school-level threshold of maternal imprisonment effects on the educational outcomes of children--especially college completion--was notably lower than parallel effects of paternal imprisonment, which are nonetheless also significant. Our thesis was that this lower threshold of maternal effects is the product of the refusal to accommodate family differences and vulnerabilities of women in the demands of sentencing guidelines for imprisonment.

Two perspectives on the vulnerabilities and subsequent diminished educational outcomes resulting from parental incarceration at both the individual and the school levels stress interruption of parent-child relationships and the loss of educational and economic resources. An alternative perspective is that individuals and schools that experience parental incarceration are simply more vulnerable as a result of predispositions involving preexisting background risk characteristics. Yet we do not find that this latter possibility eliminates evidence of either of the previous two perspectives--especially the disrupted parent-child relationship perspective. Our measure of the interruption of the parent-child role relationship is simple and direct: the incarceration of a parent. We also include a range of measures of educational and economic resources, including individual and school-level measures of family income. We further include a range of measures of predisposing background differences, such as parental alcoholism and other non-normative behaviors. Despite the range of these measures included in our analyses, the influence of the disruption of parent-child relationships involved in parental incarceration, and especially maternal incarceration, both at the individual and the school levels, is persistent and robust. We cannot conclude that our results are definitive, but they are certainly suggestive that the disruption of role relationships resulting from maternal as well as paternal incarceration is detrimental to the educational outcomes of children in adolescence and early adulthood.

Although justified in terms of legal equality norms, the cultural roots of the increased resort to maternal imprisonment likely lie in its use as a means to signal the repudiation of bad mothers who are accused of violating maternal role expectations. Legal equality norms embedded in the enforcement of state and federal sentencing guidelines mask and punish differences in gendered role expectations with damaging consequences that unfold later and intergenerationally in the diminished educational outcomes for children. Capturing the plight of incarcerated mothers and their children in the postguidelines era, Flavin (2009: 162; see also, for example, Carlen & Worrall 2004; Gomez 1997; Hagan & Petty 2001) notes that without a fundamental shift in our approaches to punishment and parenthood, incarcerated women will continue to be scapegoated and widely assumed to be incompetent mothers, should their parenting be acknowledged at all.Our research suggests the social costs of this punitive policy.

An implication of our research is that the emphasis placed on legal equality for women in criminal law requires reexamination. Meda Chesney-Lind's (2006) call for a renewed consideration of patriarchy, crime, and justice in an era of political backlash underlines the seriously problematic aspects of a contemporary equality with a vengeance--a form of equality that severely impacts women, mothers, and their children throughout the life cycle. Our research indicates that the norm of legal equality is counterproductive: it obscures empirically demonstrated consequences that call for a fuller appraisal of the social statuses of mothers and children relative to men in the circumstances of everyday family life.

Criminal courts neglect gender-specific rights of mothers and children, including the potential common ground on which the rights of parents as defendants might be more transparently aligned with the rights of children as victims in need of parental attention, care, and protection. Women's and progressive criminal justice organizations, as well as researchers, may underestimate these interconnections and their broad relevance to affected communities. We have seen that formal equality can lead to substantive inequality for women and children and that the gendered effects of the logic of judicial neutrality are socially costly not just for individuals and families, but also for the schools and the communities in which they are located across the nation.