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Legacy of Mass Incarceration: Parental Incarceration Impacts One in Fourteen Children

A recent study by the research firm Child Trends revealed a stunning consequence of our nation’s policy and practice of mass incarceration: one out of every fourteen children in the U.S. has a parent who is currently or has previously been incarcerated. In other words, a staggering seven percent of America’s youth – an estimated five million children – has a parent who has spent time in prison or jail. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.34].

For black children the numbers are even bleaker: one out of every nine black children under 18 has a parent who is or has been incarcerated. Further, according to a May 2016 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children has an incarcerated parent.

The Child Trends study was based on the National Survey of Children’s Health, with the goal of understanding both the prevalence and consequences of parental incarceration. The study found the number of children impacted by parental incarceration is about three times higher than indicated by earlier reports, which only counted children with a parent currently in prison or jail.

Sadly, the study’s authors noted their estimate of five million children impacted by parental incarceration was “almost certainly” low, because it does not include children with a non-residential parent who has been imprisoned. A 2007 study, the most recent “point in time” reference, estimated that 1.7 million children had a parent (including non-residential parents) currently in prison or jail.

Children affected by parental incarceration have long been known to suffer a panoply of collateral consequences. Research has found that affected children age 6-11 have a 9 percent higher likelihood of experiencing difficulties in school than children without incarcerated parents. Affected children age 12-17 struggle similarly, and younger school-age children are more likely to have emotional difficulties than other children.

The Child Trends report put an even finer point on the consequences of parental incarceration. It found that more than half of affected children had lived with someone with a substance abuse problem – compared to a rate less than 10 percent for children whose parents have not been in jail or prison. More than one-third of affected children had witnessed violence between their parents or guardians, or had seen or experienced violence in their neighborhood compared to other children who had experienced or witnessed such violence at a rate of 10 percent. Nearly three out of five children affected by parental incarceration had parents who were either divorced or separated, compared to one in five for other children. Most troubling, nearly one in four affected children had lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, and almost one in ten had experienced the death of a parent.

According to the Pew report, only 15 percent of children with an incarcerated father, and 2 percent with an incarcerated mother, graduate from college. For comparison, the college graduation rate for children without an incarcerated parent is 40 percent.

The Pew study noted that new and effective programs are needed to mitigate the harm associated with parental incarceration. The researchers specifically recommended that policymakers make it easier for children to maintain positive relationships with their parents during incarceration, and encouraged more child-friendly visiting areas to mitigate some of the anxiety and fear that many children experience when visiting a parent in prison.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2016, some researchers believe there is a direct correlation between the incarceration of a parent and the likelihood that their children will experience some involvement with the criminal justice system themselves, though the validity of that connection has been debated.

There have been some efforts at easing the impact of our nation’s criminal justice system on children with incarcerated parents.

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Family Caregiver Support Program, has provided funding to states for counseling, legal and other services for elderly relatives caring for children whose parents are in prison or jail.

In New York, citing the impact on children, state lawmakers introduced a bill to create a pilot program to place prisoners in facilities near their families, to facilitate visitation.

In March 2016, the board for the school district in San Francisco adopted a resolution requiring school counselors and teachers to take training concerning the needs of children with incarcerated parents. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the district may also develop and implement curricula, under the banner of health or civics education, to address the effects of parental incarceration.

Also in San Francisco, following conversations with an advocacy group representing children with incarcerated parents, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi lowered the minimum age for jail visitation from 18 to 16 in 2015.

Of course comprehensive sentencing reform that lowers the number of people in prison and jail would have an even greater impact on reducing the prevalence of parental incarceration – but lawmakers apparently have not considered that approach.


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