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 Wisconsin, the number is closer to ninety percent.
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.
This brings me to the obvious question: If the effects of family breakdown are indisputably calamitous, why are we so intent on accelerating the breakdown? Whether it’s the refusal to treat two-parent families as normative in textbooks, an increasing problem, or the deconstruction of marriage inherent in the campaign for same-sex “marriage,” the effect is the same: The one institution that we depend on to instill “the basic self-control and reciprocity that a free society takes for granted” is diminished.
That’s because marriage, in the sense of working together as a team and making the sacrifices necessary to raise good kids, is hard work. If people are taught that it’s merely one lifestyle choice among many, we are more likely to opt for an easier way of living. Then it will be a case, as Morse demonstrates, of “sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.”
That’s why we need to help our neighbors understand what’s at stake in the debate over the family and the Federal Marriage Amendment. They may think that we’re talking about purely private choices, but as corrections officials will tell you, the consequences are often all too public.