Children of the Incarcerated

5 million children, or roughly 7% of all children living in the U.S., have a parent who is or was previously incarcerated, according to a new study by Child Trends.

Outcomes for children with parents involved in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly negative. Drawing from National Survey of Children’s Health data, the Child Trends’ research finds connections between parental incarceration and childhood health, behavior, and academic problems. Among those children, black children, poor children, and children of parents with little education are disproportionately represented.

“Discussions of U.S. corrections policy do not often consider children,” wrote P. Mae Cooper and David Murphey, authors of the study.

The Center for American Progress released a similar study reinforcing these findings and citing the need for more programs to mitigate the effects of parental incarceration on children.

CAP documents the “inter-generational” consequences of incarceration through five pillars:

  • Income
    • Employment and public assistance often out-of-reach for parents with criminal records
  • Savings and Assets
    • Criminal justice debts like child support arrears limit ability to save for the future
  • Education
    • Major barriers to obtaining education and training
  • Housing
    • Public as well as private housing off-limits for parents with criminal records
  • Family Strength and Stability
    • Stresses associated with parental criminal records impediment to having healthy and stable relationships

All of these consequences have an outsized influence on a child’s chances of becoming a productive member of society and avoiding direct involvement with the criminal justice system.

In light of America’s growing mass incarceration problem (the Bureau of Justice Statistics found number of incarcerated grew by 1,900 last year), children are increasingly its silent, behind-the-scenes victims.

With this realization, non-profit groups like the Anne E. Casey Foundation are working to provide intervention and support programs that focus on keeping kids connected to their parents while they are behind bars to reduce the immediate psychological stigmas attached to their experiences. But we as a society need to think more about the ramifications for children when parents are locked up.