A now voluminous literature documents the social and economic consequences of criminal legal system expansion in the United States. Largely missing from this literature, however, is a consideration of the consequences of sibling crime and punishment for families. This oversight is unfortunate for at least three reasons. First, sibling incarceration is the most common form of familial incarceration in the United States—more than one in four Americans report ever experiencing the incarceration of a sibling—and is highly unequally distributed by race and sex at birth. Second, while contact with the criminal legal system in the absence of incarceration is often deemed less serious, youth face high risks of arrest and seemingly “low-level” criminal legal system contact is often destabilizing. Finally, the dearth of research on the ramifications of sibling system contact is curious given a long criminological tradition on sibling co-offending and overlap in risky behaviors.

Much as with criminal legal system contact for parents, the majority of youth with a sibling bound up in the criminal legal system will not become enmeshed in it themselves—but such an experience leaves few children and their families unchanged. In this talk, Wakefield will describe three related studies that interrogate 1) the effects of sibling criminal legal system contact on child and family wellbeing, 2) preliminary research on how a sibling’s criminal involvement structures the criminal involvement of another, and 3) provide an overview of how research on sibling influence has and has not made its way into the broader criminological literature.

Sara Wakefield is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. Her research interests focus on the consequences of mass imprisonment for the family, with an emphasis on childhood wellbeing and racial inequality, culminating in a series of articles and book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality (2013, with Chris Wildeman). More recently, she is working on several team-based projects that provide information on the consequences of contact with the criminal legal system that are not easily captured in available datasets. More information can be found at

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