Mass incarceration has become a hot-button political issue in West Virginia and around the country in recent years. Research into the consequences of placing millions of Americans behind bars makes for sobering reading, but the results of a study conducted by researchers from Cornell University have shocked even experts in the area. The Family History of Incarceration Survey was based on data gathered from 4,041 people by the University of Chicago, and it suggests that 45 percent of Americans have an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated child, spouse, sibling, parent or grandparent.

The Cornell researchers say that the figure, which is about twice as high as they expected, is the first accurate representation of family member incarceration in the United States. While the incarceration of a close family member was especially high among African-Americans, it was also quite common among Hispanics and whites. Siblings are the most likely family member to be in prison, according to the study.

The findings also suggest that earning a college degree may not reduce the risk of incarceration as much as previous research has suggested. This appears to be especially true for African-Americans. The researchers say that 71 percent of African-Americans without a high school diploma have a close relative in prison, but that figure only falls to 70 percent among African-American high school graduates and 55 percent among African-American college graduates. Only 15 percent of college-educated whites have an immediate family member behind bars.

The sociological factors that could make an individual more prone to finding themselves on the wrong side of the law could also be cited by experienced criminal defense attorneys as mitigating factors during plea discussions. Other factors that could influence prosecutors to reduce penalties or charges include genuine regret, the support of family and friends and gainful employment.