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Researchers shocked by family incarceration rates study

Civil rights advocates in Georgia and around the country have been campaigning for criminal justice reform for several years, and a study released by Cornell University could add weight to their arguments. Researchers from the university's College of Human Ecology and College of Arts and Sciences scrutinized more than 4,000 cases, and they discovered that a sobering 45 percent of Americans have an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated child, spouse, sibling, parent, or grandparent.

The results of the Family History of Incarceration Survey surprised the researchers because the incarceration rates discovered were about twice what experts in the field had predicted. While overall family incarceration rates of almost one in two may be alarming, the figures rise to an even more disturbing three out of five among African-Americans and individuals with low levels of education.

The study also suggests that earning a college degree does not seem to protect African-Americans from incarceration as much as it does whites. Only about one in seven white college graduates have seen a close family member sent to prison. Among African-Americans with college degrees, the number is higher than 50 percent. The figures for African-Americans who did not attend college are even higher with 70 percent of high school graduates and 71 percent of those who did not complete high school having a close family member incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

The factors researchers often link with high incarceration rates could also be cited by experienced criminal defense attorneys as mitigating circumstances during plea negotiations. When individuals who have been offered few opportunities in life find themselves on the wrong side of the law, prosecutors may choose to be lenient if they demonstrate sincere remorse, have the support of family and friends and seem committed to turning their lives around.

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