Panel Paper: The Impact of Sentencing Severity on Fertility and Family Formation

Friday, March 9, 2018
Room 24 (Burkle Family Building at Claremont Graduate University)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Siobhan M. O'Keefe, University of California, Davis

The United States incarceration rate has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, tripling between 1980 and 2000. By 2011, close to one percent of the adult population was under some form of correctional supervision. The increase has been most striking for black men. By 2000, 11.5% of all black men were in prison or jail, and over 15% of black men had ever been incarcerated. While there are many factors influencing incarceration, in this project, I focus on the North Carolina Structured Sentencing Act (the Act), which is in many ways typical of policies passed by states in the 1980s and 1990s that increased the severity of criminal sentences. Previous work has focused on the overall incarceration rate or changes caused by the War on Drugs. This type of policy, an important component of increased incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s, has been largely unexplored. The Act quickly increased the incarceration rate in North Carolina. The number of men incarcerated per prime aged woman increased by 60 percent for black women 15-44 and 40 percent for white women 15-44 after the passage of the Act.

Although incarcerated men are physically separated from their communities, their absence can still affect the community they left behind. To explore these effects, I use an “intensity of treatment” methodological approach based in pre-period rates of prison entry with vital statistics natality data. Preliminary results show that women in partner markets (defined by age, race, and county) more at risk to see male incarceration increase after the passage of the 1994 Act have decreased fertility rates, particularly for women under age 25. I also find a change in the composition of mothers observed giving birth -- they are on average older, less likely to have dropped out of high school, and for black women, more likely to be married. They also seem to be having children with men who are relatively older. I plan to extend this analysis to other aspects of family formation using recently acquired microdata on marriages and divorces in North Carolina.