It is almost a truism that kids are harmed when a parent is incarcerated and the family is separated.

The founder of Black Lives Matter has weighed in on this matter:

“More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States,” writes Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, in an essay published by the Brennan Center for Justice. “That’s 2.3 million families that have been torn apart.” 

#Cut50 cofounder Van Jones, who aims at cutting the number of people in prisons by half, says that incarceration is “perpetuating the ugly legacy of racism,” and “tearing families apart.”

Many Democratic politicians, including most of the presidential contenders, buy into this idea.

The theory is that the children of incarcerated parents lack caregivers and role models in the home (!).

Rafael Mangual suggest in a fascinating piece in City Journal that the evidence doesn’t bear this out.

Mangual writes:

Yet the contention that incarcerating an individual is, in most cases, harmful to his family—and especially to dependent children—relies on an assumption that these individuals are capable of being emotionally supportive guardians and reliable sources of economic stability. The evidentiary basis for this assumption is shaky. Considerable evidence suggests, to the contrary, that the struggles of children of such parents—whether in school or in other areas of their lives—have less to do with their parents being incarcerated than with the behavior that led to the incarceration.

And this should be obvious:

Whether a parent’s presence in a child’s life is beneficial seems heavily dependent on whether that parent engages in high levels of “antisocial behavior.” By this, researchers mean generally failing to conform to social norms, being deceitful, acting impulsively and with reckless disregard for others, displaying high levels of irritability and aggressiveness, and often lacking remorse after misbehaving. The literature on the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior suggests that the presence of parents who engage in such behavior may be even worse for a child than the absence of a pro-social parent. “Fathers’ antisocial behaviors predicted growth in children’s externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, with links stronger among resident-father families,” according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. These results, the study’s authors warned, “suggest caution in policies and programs which seek to universally increase marriage or father involvement without attention to fathers’ behaviors.”

We’ve often blogged on the value to a child of growing up in a stable, two-parent household. But some two-parent households are exceptions to this rule. University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Sara Jaffee has studied this:

Jaffee adds that the “advantages of growing up in a two-parent family may be negated when one or both parents are characterized by a history of antisocial behavior.”

Van Jones may think that people end up behind bars because of racism. But it’s their behavior that has sent them there (yes, there are miscarriages of justice). A 2002 article in the Lancet, the U.S. medical publication, studied 19,000 male prisoners in 12 countries. The study found that the prisoners showed “about ten times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than the general population.”

Mangual writes:

Given that exposure to highly antisocial fathers is detrimental for children and associated with a host of negative life outcomes, and that close to half of prisoners, if not more, have ASPD, isn’t it possible that incarceration sometimes could have a positive impact on families?

A number of studies indicate that this might be the case. For example, one study found that kids do better in school when the convicted parent is incarcerated rather than at home. Incarceration of a parent, as opposed to having that parent in the home, can increase the time a child stays in school.

Sad as it is, kids may be better off when the parent convicted of crimes is behind bars.

While we hope that people sent to prison amend their lives, we should not sentimentalize them and assume that they would be wholesome role models for kids.