I?ve been going into prisons for nearly three decades. In that time some things have changed: For example, there?s a hardness in the faces of prisoners, particularly young ones, that wasn?t there ten years ago.
Still, many things remain the same. For one thing, prisons are still filled with men and women from broken families. In nearly every respect, our prisons are a cautionary tale about the dangers of weakening traditional family structures. The question is: Are we listening?
The link between family breakdown and crime is well-established to the point of being almost indisputable. It?s estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all inmates grew up in something other than an intact two-parent home. In some juvenile corrections systems, like that of
Economist Jennifer Roback Morse summed up this link neatly in a recent Policy Review article: ?Without parents?two of them, married to each other, working together as a team?a child is more likely to end up in the criminal justice system at some point in his life.? ?More likely,? in this case, means at least twice as likely. And in lieu of family, what a child does is join a gang.
The problems don?t end there. As Morse puts it, ?if a child finds himself in the criminal justice system . . . the prison will perform the parental function of supervising and controlling that person?s behavior.? The problem is that this supervision is, to put it mildly, a poor substitute for the mixture of love and discipline that only real parents can provide.
What?s more, prisons abound with what Morse calls ?family substitutes,? fellow inmates who teach young offenders how to be ?better? criminals. I saw it when I was in prison. Is it any wonder that recidivism rates are so high?
The cost of family breakdown is felt by more than the offender and his victim. Every twinge of fear you feel when you go out at night can be partially attributed to the effects of family breakdown. The same is true of every one of your tax dollars that goes to law enforcement and corrections, instead of other worthwhile purposes.