IN A FORTHCOMING paper in the American Economic Review, one of the discipline’s most prestigious journals, three economists conclude that “[p]arental incarceration has beneficial effects on some important outcomes for children.” Unsurprisingly the study has provoked outrage from keyboard warriors. Some are uncomfortable with the very notion that prison could have anything other than wholly malign effects. Others worry that the research, however well intentioned, gives politicians ammunition to double down on punitive penal policy. In reality, though the study has some uncomfortable findings, it should help governments devise better policy.
The authors analyse 30 years’ worth of high-quality administrative data from the state of Ohio. They study children whose parents are defendants in a criminal case. Using a clever methodology, they in effect divide the children into two groups, which are identical except in one crucial respect: whether or not one of their parents was sent to prison. Some parents who committed relatively minor crimes were on the wrong side of harsh judges, whereas others got off scot-free for the same offence.
The paper reports a number of outcomes, not all of which are improved by a parental stay in prison. The “estimates on academic performance and teen parenthood are imprecise,” the authors say. But a parent’s incarceration lowers the chance of their child going to prison from 12.4% to 7.5%. It also appears to cause the children to go on to live in better-off neighbourhoods, which could be a sign that household earnings rise. Perhaps having a parent go to prison scares a child straight; or perhaps removing a bad influence from a family allows those left behind to thrive.
Does this mean that America would benefit from even tougher penal policy? Hardly. The paper’s findings suggest that the overall costs of the prison system, including the money spent on housing inmates, are likely to outweigh the benefits. The true messages of the paper are subtler. Any effort to reduce America’s sky-high incarceration rate, though noble, would need to reckon with the costs that it might impose on some children. It is a sorry state of affairs that American kids could stand to gain when their parents are locked up. The challenge for economists and politicians is to find policies to help them that are not as socially destructive.