UF Study Shows House Arrest Is No Easy Out For Criminal Offenders
July 26, 1999
GAINESVILLE — Contrary to public perception, home becomes a prison and the entire family is punished when criminal offenders are sentenced to house arrest, a new University of Florida study finds.
Offenders say the guilt of having to see family members suffer and not be able to help them makes home confinement — a popular alternative to a jail sentence — worse than prison, said Sylvia Ansay, a UF graduate student in sociology who did the research for her doctoral dissertation.
“The public sees people out and about instead of in prison and may see this as an easy thing,” Ansay said. “But for family members that I interviewed, it’s not a bit easy. It was clear that in some households all members were virtually on community control.
“The meaning of such family rituals as attending weddings and funerals, celebrating birthdays, enjoying the holidays or caring for elders are necessarily discounted, devalued and even penalized,” Ansay said. “Little wonder that family members frequently voice their belief that they, too, are being punished.”
If a wife’s car breaks down at midnight, a child misses a school bus or a disabled grandmother needs a prescription, the family member in home confinement feels totally helpless, she said.
Having to sit by while family members shift roles and do double duty causes a great deal of guilt and stress for the offender, Ansay said. “One public defender said that if it were his son or daughter, he would advise them to take prison time and get it over,’” she said. “Many offenders expressed the same sentiment, that if they had to do it again, they would rather go to prison.”
Community-based programs, such as house arrest and electronic monitoring, have become a mainstay in criminal punishment, increasingly replacing jail or prison time, Ansay said. Community control, Florida’s version of home confinement and intensive supervision, is one of the nation’s most ambitious programs, said Ansay, whose study tracked 26 offenders and their families from one circuit court district during the last year.
Although most offenders appreciate being with their families while serving their sentences, the stress of continuing family obligations frequently breaks down the roles and rituals that hold the family together, Ansay said.
“This research is of major significance because it takes a rare look at the everyday experience for families of having a member of the household on house arrest,” said Jaber F. Gubrium, a UF sociology professor who supervised Ansay’s research.
Ansay said one man could no longer routinely take his daily walk to visit his elderly mother to make sure she had taken her medication.
The same man also was forbidden to bring his young son to a neighborhood park to play. And the women he lived with had to pick up the slack, doing errands they used to share together and feeling lonely going to places they once went to together, Ansay said.
“When he got sentenced to 18 months, his mom got sentenced to 18 months, his son got sentenced to 18 months, and so did I,” the man’s girlfriend said.
Another offender, in a difficult pregnancy, had to depend upon her mother, sister and aunt to drive her 30 miles to the probation office every week, as well as to doctor’s appointments. “It took all day, sometimes, with waiting and all,” her sister said. “I felt I was being punished for the crimes she did.”
Considering the needs of the family is important because if the family is successful in the program, the offender is successful, Ansay said.
“We need to reexamine family support and see it from two sides,” she said. “It’s more than other members helping someone comply with official rules. There are family rules, too, the things within the family that people do for each other to make family work.”