The politics of research: parental incarceration and child welfare

The American Economic Review is publishing an article by Samuel Norris, Matthew Pecenco, and Jeffrey Weaver that suggests parental incarceration has benefits for children:

Every year, millions of Americans experience the incarceration of a family member. Using 30 years of administrative data from Ohio and exploiting differing incarceration propensities of randomly assigned judges, this paper provides the first quasi-experimental estimates of the effects of parental and sibling incarceration in the US. Parental incarceration has beneficial effects on some important outcomes for children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult neighborhood quality. While estimates on academic performance and teen parenthood are imprecise, we reject large positive or negative effects. Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.

The authors have been criticized not for the substance of their conclusions, but because their findings will serve to legitimize mass incarceration.

Noah Smith has an excellent post discussing the controversy and arguing that scholars should not be constrained by political considerations when deciding what to publish. 

I want to make two different points.  First, I don’t think the main message of the paper is pro-incarceration at all.  My initial reaction reading the abstract (that’s all I’ve read) is that it adds to the growing body of evidence that children are very sensitive to their environments, and that we need to think hard about what we can do to help disadvantaged children have decent childhoods and reach their potential as adults.  You could read this article and think we need to make the Biden family allowance permanent.  You could read it and think that we need to provide paid family leave.  You could read it and think we need better schools.  You could read it and think that we need to make it easier for women to leave abusive relationships.

Second, I don’t think the paper will torpedo criminal justice reform efforts.  Democrats are certainly not going to change their views on the desirability of criminal justice reform as a result of this study.  More importantly, I doubt Republican politicians will either.  The fact is that there is modest support among some Republicans for criminal justice reform, based on years of advocacy and attitude-shaping by libertarians and fiscal conservatives.  Getting to yes on reform will be difficult, but that’s just politics.  One paper isn’t going to change the balance of forces; that’s not how politics works. 

What proponents of criminal justice reform really need to worry about is rising crime rates.  A rise in crime will not just destroy support for reform, it will help Republicans gain control of government at all levels.