The Intergeneration Effects of Criminal Justice Policies on Substance Use Crimes

The harms of substance use and the specific public policies implemented for combating substance use are associated with societal costs estimated at over $500 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Prevailing debates on public policies for curbing substance use focus on the relative merits of employing a public health approach— awareness, prevention, and treatment—vs. a punitive approach. Over the last half century the punitive approach has predominated. It is estimated that the U.S. spends $63 billion annually in criminal enforcement related to substance use—through policing, court costs, and incarceration. Debates focus on the effectiveness of these policies in curbing substance use—particularly in light of the enormous increase that the war on drugs has caused in the prison population—which is associated with large societal costs and health and economic consequences for the offenders. Yet, researchers have only recently begun to examine how the consequences of criminal justice policies spillover to others, including the offenders’ children. The proposed research expands on our prior research on criminal penalties by focusing on the effects of criminal penalties on outcomes of children of offenders. Our analysis takes advantage of a unique dataset that includes multiple North Carolina administrative databases linked at the child-level. The data include information on parental criminal involvement as well as children’s longitudinal outcomes in various settings, offering some important analytic advantages over survey data. This study has four aims. The overarching question addressed in this study is how various criminal sanctions for substance related crimes affect child wellbeing. Aims 1 and 2 lay the foundation for the primary focus of this study, aims 3 and 4. Aim 1 strives to improve our understanding of what factors affect variation in sentencing so that we can more fully account for these sources of endogeneity in aims 3-4. Aim 2 will investigate factors that affect parental participation in specific state prison correctional programs, controlling for factors that led to the incarceration. Aim 3 examines how specific sanctions and participation in correctional programs affect parental recidivism and children’s probability of being removed from their parent’s care, in the 7 months to 3 years following the conviction. Aim 4 studies how specific sanctions and correctional programs applied to parents affect child wellbeing during follow-up. The results of this study could inform sentencing guidelines and sanctions that are applied to individuals who are convicted of criminal charges related to substance use. Because the criminal justice system comes into contact with many individuals who abuse substances, and because the criminal justice system is a gateway for substance use treatment services and for other correctional programs, this work can inform policies that will have a public health impact. For instance, the use of alternative sentences, particularly for minor or first offenses, coupled with ancillary support services may be a desirable alternative to active incarceration.