In 2012, one of every 148 persons in the State of Alabama was behind bars, compared to one of every 200 persons nationwide. Miscalculations in policy and in funding over the last three decades lead us to where we are today, at nearly double our prisons’ capacity. At the same time, save some rare instances, it is not bad policy that puts people in prison. People are in prison because they’ve committed serious crimes, and in Alabama, nearly half of the prison state’s population is serving time for violent crimes. While the rate of imprisonment nationwide has declined by 5% since 2008, it has risen by 2% in Alabama. Perhaps not coincidentally, Alabama also has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and rates of single-parent households.
In 2013, every one of the ten states with the highest incarceration rates—including Alabama—had a median household income that was, on average, $7,000 lower than the national average, and a poverty rate that was three percentage points higher. Reduced income leads to fewer opportunities for educational improvement, lower rates of employment, more dependence upon government subsidies, and as research indicates, a greater sense of hopelessness when it comes to the future. These individuals are also prone to risk-taking behavior to engage in high- risk activities such as tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse, out-of-wedlock and violent behavior, which leads many to have at least one encounter in their lives with law enforcement and corrections.
As fewer children are born into homes where both parents are present, more opportunities for trouble and arrest emerge.
Poverty is a reliable precursor of a state’s incarceration problem, but it isn’t the only one. If that were the case, incarceration rates would have been higher when Americans were poorer. During the recent recession, for example, Americans of every demographic lost wealth, but incarceration rates declined in two-thirds of all states during the same period. The more telling trend is that the same states with the highest incarceration rates and the lowest household incomes also have some of the highest levels of single-parent households in the nation. Because there tends to be less parental supervision in households where only one parent resides, children—especially males—in one-parent homes are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than children from intact families.
As fewer children are born into homes where both parents are present, more opportunities for trouble and arrest emerge. Earlier this year, the Family Research Council released its fourth annual report measuring the social health of American children. Of the 13 million teens in the United States at the time of the study (2008-2011), more than 7 million (54%) had spent their childhood without at least one of their biological parents in an intact family. Every one of the ten states with the highest incarceration rates had a below-average percentage of children growing up in homes with only one parent. Alabama was among the worst, with only 38% of its children growing up in a home with two biological parents.
Research indicates that a household that has never formed into a stable, traditional, two-parent family is more likely to be poor. Certainly, government cannot establish or correct the proper family structure in society; however, there are ways that it can foster strong families or at least remove hindrances. Marriage penalties could be removed from federal entitlement programs and the tax code that currently deter couples from wedlock. Educational choice can be expanded, allowing families to opt for schools that emphasize strong moral values and character building. The state must also protect religious liberty and remove barriers to proven faith-based options for instruction, counseling, and care that can change the trajectory of a family in need.
Dr. John R. Hill is senior research analyst and Katherine Robertson is vice president for the Alabama Policy Institute (API), an independent non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. If you would like to speak with the authors, please call (205) 870-9900 or email at [email protected] or [email protected].
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