American Sociological Association

Low-Income Black Mothers Parenting Adolescents in the Mass Incarceration Era: The Long Reach of Criminalization

Punitive and disciplinary forms of governance disproportionately target low-income Black Americans for surveillance and punishment, and research finds far-reaching consequences of such criminalization. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 46 low-income Black mothers of adolescents in urban neighborhoods, this article advances understanding of the long reach of criminalization by examining the intersection of two related areas of inquiry: the criminalization of Black youth and the institutional scrutiny and punitive treatment of Black mothers. Findings demonstrate that poor Black mothers calibrate their parenting strategies not only to fears that their children will be criminalized by mainstream institutions and the police, but also to concerns that they themselves will be criminalized as bad mothers who could lose their parenting rights. We develop the concept of “family criminalization” to explain the intertwining of Black mothers’ and children’s vulnerability to institutional surveillance and punishment. We argue that to fully grasp the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on Black youth and adults, sociologists must be attuned to family dynamics and linkages as important to how criminalization unfolds in the lives of Black Americans.


Sinikka Elliott and Megan Reid





Starting Page


Ending Page