Half of US adults have family member who has been jailed

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Nearly half of all American adults have an immediate family member who has experienced incarceration, according to a new study published Thursday that spotlights the extent of mass imprisonment in the United States.

The report comes as President Donald Trump has given his backing to a bipartisan bill aimed at reforming sentences imposed for drug offenses, a move that could begin to reduce the prison population after years of spiraling growth.


The study by Cornell University and lobbying group FWD.us found that approximately 45 percent of American adults (around 113 million people) have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated for at least one night in jail or prison.

It was based on online and phone surveys conducted on a nationally representative sample of 4,041 adults in the summer of 2018. One in seven US adults has an immediate family member who has been incarcerated for at least one year, and one in 34 adults has had an immediate family member spend 10 years or longer in prison, it added.

An estimated 6.5 million people, or one in 38, have an immediate family member who is currently incarcerated in jail or prison. Incarceration results in a variety of direct and indirect harms, according to the study.

“Research has shown that even short periods of incarceration can be devastating to people's lives and additional punishments such as fines and fees,” it said. “Restrictions on employment and housing, and the loss of basic human rights limit opportunities for success long after individuals have completed their sentences.”

The study found that black people are 50 percent more likely than white people to have had a family member incarcerated, and three times more likely to have had a family member incarcerated for one year or longer.

Family member prison

People earning under $25,000 per year are 61 percent more likely than people earning over $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated -- and three times more likely to have had a family member in prison for a year or longer.

The report said its findings “should serve as a wake-up call and a stark reminder of how much work is needed to alleviate the harms caused by mass incarceration and unravel the complicated tangle of laws that perpetuate it.”

The adoption of successive repressive laws since the 1980s has seen the prison population explode. There are now more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons on any given day, and nearly 11 million admissions to local jails each year.

US jail and prison populations are four times larger than in 1980 and the United States continues to incarcerate more people than any other countries in the world, the report said. With 710 prisoners per 100,000 people, the US incarceration rate is far ahead of Western democracies (147 in the United Kingdom, 118 in Canada, 108 in Belgium, 98 in France).

Last month, President Trump announced he would back a bipartisan prison reform brought by a group of Republican and Democratic senators to shorten prison sentences for certain nonviolent offenders. In particular, it would abolish automatic penalties of 25 years in prison in the event of a third conviction for a drug case, even a minor one. Hardline conservatives could however stall its adoption.

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