With more than 200,000 people in Texas jails and prisons, and nearly half a million children in Texas who have experienced a parent getting locked up, a new national report highlighted something Texas families are well aware of: family incarceration leads to potentially devastating emotional and financial effects.
Half of American adults — 113 million people in the country — have had a family member incarcerated, according to the report, which was released Thursday by the bipartisan advocacy and policy organization FWD.us and Cornell University.
“This report is about us, it’s about the families,” said Jennifer Erschabek, the Austin executive director of Texas Inmate Families Association. “When it comes to the stress, when it comes to the financial hardships imposed on families, when it comes to visitation, everything about the prison system and how it affects families, it’s all there.”
In the study, researchers analyzed prison data and surveyed more than 4,000 adults this summer in a quest to determine the financial and emotional ripple effects on those who experience incarceration secondhand. The United States incarcerated more than 1.5 million people in prisons and another 740,000 in jails in 2016, according to a Bureau of Justice report, contributing to a desperately swollen prison system.
FWD.us was founded in 2013 by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a focus on immigration, eventually expanding to include criminal justice reform.
The report’s authors said they wanted to measure how the overwhelming impact of the criminal justice network spreads into American homes and touches the people nearest to the prisoners.
“Nobody knew how many families were touched by it,” said Felicity Rose, research and policy director of criminal justice reform at FWD.us, and lead researcher for the study. “You can’t talk about the impact and understand what it means for families in America unless you understand how many people are affected.”
The study discovered that there are currently 6.5 million people who have an immediate family member in jail or prison, but that almost half the population has experienced family incarceration.
While the researchers acknowledge the difference between a single night spent in county jail and a 10-year prison sentence, Rose said that even a brief brush with the system can be destabilizing and traumatic for families.
The analysis also highlighted the racial and socioeconomic disparities within the criminal justice system. The researchers determined that black adults are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites, and that individuals who make less than $25,000 per year face a 61 percent greater risk of having a family member serve time than those who earn more than $100,000.
Rose said the demographic disparities mean that for poor inmates and prisoners of color, along with their families, even a three-day jail stint could lead to a downward spiral of economic instability that comes with job loss, legal fines, and court and lawyer fees that quickly pile up.
Around 90 percent of adults in jail or prison are men and a third of the women in the study reported that they lost their household’s primary source of income due to a male loved one’s incarceration. Then there are the long drives to the prisons, the fees associated with background checks for visitation, and the anxieties that come with juggling life as a single parent or caretaker.
In the last two and a half years alone, Child Protective Services removed approximately 19,500 children each year because of parental incarceration. A May 2018 budget report revealed that more than 60 percent of the women in Texas prisons have at least one minor child, which comes with an annual taxpayer price tag of $30,960 for each child in the foster care system.
These daunting facts are what Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the conservative Austin think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and a leader on TPPF’s national reform campaign Right on Crime, says Texas needs to work on.
“We obviously need to continue to reduce both crime and incarceration in Texas,” Levin said. “And we have a lot of room to do that. We still have more than 16,000 people in Texas in state prisons and jails for drug possession.”
Levin said that Texas should focus on pushing legislation that supports drug courts and reducing the disparity of who is arrested and booked into jail, as well as rehabilitation efforts.
“We need to look at the total cost of the criminal justice system, including the child welfare system costs, the loss of productivity, and the generational impact of children of incarcerated parents going on to be incarcerated themselves,” Levin said.
And with Texas legislators preparing to flock to the Capitol for the 86th legislative session, Erschabek said she hopes the report sets the table for further reform in Texas.
“Families are also crime survivors,” Erschabek said. “They didn’t buy into this. This isn’t because of what they did, but they are still suffering the consequences of what has happened.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.