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BJS Report Finds 53% of Prisoners Are Parents

BJS Report Finds 53% of Prisoners Are Parents

by Mark Wilson

About 809,800 (53%) of America’s 1,518,535 prisoners in 2007 were parents of minor children, according to a Special Report of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Fifty-two percent of state prisoners and 63 percent of federal prisoners reported having 1,706,600 minor children, or 2.3 percent of U.S. residents under 18 years old.

The number of incarcerated parents increased 79 percent (357,300) from 1991 to 2007, and the number of children of incarcerated parents grew by 80 percent (761,000) during the same period. Most of that growth appears to be among state prisoners, with 413,100 incarcerated parents in 1991 growing to 686,000 in 2007 (60.2%) and children of incarcerated parents increasing from 860,300 in 1991 to 1,427,500 in 2007 (60.3%). The largest increases occurred between 1991 and 1997 with parents increasing 40 percent and children increasing 42 percent. Between 1997 and 2007, those numbers increased by only 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

In 2007, 744,200 incarcerated fathers reported having 1,559,200 children, while 65,600 incarcerated mothers reported 147,400 children. Since 1991, the number of children with a father in prison has increased 77 percent while the number with incarcerated mothers has shot up 131 percent. “This finding reflects a faster rate of growth in the number of mothers in state and federal prison (up 122%) compared to the number of fathers (up 76%) between 1991 and midyear 2007,” according to the report.

“Black children (6.7%) were seven and a half times more likely than white children (0.9%) to have a parent in prison,” researchers found. “Hispanic children (2.4%) were more than two and a half times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.” In 2007, an estimated 1,559,200 children had an incarcerated father: 46% were black, 30% were white, and 20% were Hispanic. Of the 147,400 children with an incarcerated mother, 45% were white, 30% were black, and 19% were Hispanic.

“Twenty-two percent of the children of state inmates and 16% of children of federal inmates were age 4 or younger. For both state (53%) and federal (50%) inmates, about half their children were age 9 or younger,” according to the report. Forty-seven percent of children of incarcerated fathers and 53% of children of incarcerated mothers were between 10 and 17 years old.

The highest percentage of state (64.4%) and federal (74.1%) incarcerated parents were between 25 and 34 years old. Only 12.6 % of state and 23.8% of federal prisoners 55 years old or older were parents.

Federal and state prisoners convicted of drug and public order offenses were much more likely to be parents than violent and property offenders. However, for female federal prisoners, the likelihood of being a mother did not differ by offense. Offenders “with a criminal history were more likely to report being a parent than prisoners with no criminal history,” the report found.

Only 37.1% of parents in state prison reported living with their minor children within one month of arrest. Mothers (55.3%) were much more likely than fathers (35.5%) to have lived with their children. Federal prisoners were far more likely than state prisoners to live with their minor children, according to the report. “Mothers (52%) and fathers (54%) in state prison were equally likely to report that they provided primary financial support for their minor children prior to incarceration,” researchers stated.

“Seventy percent of parents in state prison reported exchanging letters with their children, 53% had spoken with their children over the telephone, and 42% had a personal visit since admission,” the study found. “Mothers were more likely than fathers to report having had contact with their children….A higher percentage of parents in federal prison reported contact with their children. In federal prison, 85% reported telephone contact, 84% had exchanged letters, and 55% reported having had personal visits.” Additionally, “mothers (62%) and fathers (49%) who had lived with their children were more likely to report that they had at least weekly contact with their children than mothers (44%) and fathers (30%) who had not lived with their children.”

Contact with children also increased the closer the prisoner was to release. Researchers found at least weekly contact for: 47% of parents within 6 months of release; 39% who expected to be released within 12 to 59 months; and 32% who had 60 or more months to serve. Twenty-two percent of parents who did not expect to be released reported weekly contact with their children.

The report found that 57% “of parents in state prison met the criteria for a mental health problem and 67% met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse.” The numbers were lower among federal prisoners with 43% reporting mental health problems and 56% having substance dependence or abuse issues. Sixty-five percent of mothers and 57% of fathers in state custody attended self-improvement classes, compared to 7% of federal prisoners. Copies of the report, entitled Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children (August 2008), are available on PLN’s website.

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