In 2017 Our Children and Families Will Need Support More Than Ever
Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children
Summary: Over two million children in the United States are lost in a sea of draconian laws that have led to mass incarceration. Approximately 50 percent of incarcerated individuals in U.S. prisons are parents. Incarceration of parents has devastating effects on their vulnerable children, increasing mental health and behavioural problems, contributing to child homelessness and poverty, and intensifying intergenerational inequalities. Recent research documenting the harmful impact that parental incarceration visits on children, as well as a growing interest from policymakers and practitioners to mitigate the long-term harms to children and their communities suggests that the time is ripe for policy reform to offer (1) appropriate alternatives to incarceration for parents of young children and/or (2) early release from prison for parents of young children.
Background: Academic experts have focused on the impact parental incarceration has on children’s wellbeing. The National Academy of Science’s recent report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, reviewed the most reliable research and concluded that the most consistent findings are that paternal imprisonment results in both behavioural problems and delinquency. Furthermore, John Hagan, Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, found that the U.S. college graduation rate of 40 percent among youth drops to two percent among children of incarcerated mothers and approximately 15 percent for imprisoned fathers. “My daughter was about to graduate from high school. She was heading to college but for my incarceration because I was the primary source of financial support. Now, she’s working instead. My kids have always been middle class. Now for the first time in their lives they’re living in poverty. They understand what a single parent life is like for them.” Carl, incarcerated father. Even more startling is the impact incarceration is likely to have on other children who do not have a direct experience of parental incarceration. Hagan determined that even when children have no direct experience with parental incarceration, the mere fact they may attend a school where 10-20% of other parents are imprisoned, the college graduation rate drops by half.
In their recent book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildman examined how parental incarceration perpetuates the stark racial inequalities between white and black children. The acute racial disparity within the prison system is reflected among the children of incarcerated parents, where black children are eight times more likely than white children to experience parental incarceration. For those born in 1990, white children have a 1 in 25 rate of experiencing parental incarceration by age 14 – for black children, the rate is 1 in 4. Indigenous and Latino children also experience alarming rates of parental incarceration that far exceeds their white counterparts. Wakefield and Wildman warn that long-term consequences of overuse of imprisonment may last over many decades due to the intergenerational transmission of racial inequality.
During a 2014 Congressional Hill Briefing, Glenn Martin, Executive Director of JustLeadership USA, shared his experience of the criminal justice system and how it splits families apart. While tirelessly advancing the needs of communities impacted by the criminal justice system, he continues to have to repair the damage incarceration visited on his relationship to his son and family.
In 2010, the state of Washington passed the Parenting Sentencing Alternative, which has two components that allow parents of minor children to either avoid a prison term or to transfer early from prison onto electronic monitoring at home to parent. According to Susie Leavell, Program Administrator, Washington State Department of Corrections, “After four years of implementing this alternative, we have seen promising outcomes in the way offenders respond and in the rate of new felony convictions.”
Opportunities for Improvement
A growing number of federal and state policy makers (i.e. Washington, Oregon), federal and state advocacy organizations, state and federal judges, and the United Nations have been advocating for reform in the United States’ sentencing laws to address the needs of children who are at risk of experiencing parental incarceration.
During a 2014 Congressional Hill Briefing, Charles Dalton Telschow, Slam Poet, Actor, Musical Performer, performed a piece about what it feels like to be a part of “we the forgotten”. As a 20-year old, Charles spoke about his experience of parental incarceration.
In 2013, participants in an American Bar Foundation workshop on parental incarceration recommended that judges use more discretion in sentencing in consideration of the needs of children. We invite you to join us in educating both federal and state legislators on the following opportunities for improvement that can begin to mitigate the impact of parental incarceration on children while maintaining public safety.
Legislative Steps to Consider
- Adopt a more modern and comprehensive definition of parent eligibility. Custodial and non-custodial parent may be an expectant parent, a biological parent, an adoptive parent, or a stepparent or a person who is acknowledged as a parent figure (e.g., grandparent or foster parent) of a dependent child or young adult child up to 24 years of age. Eligible parents can also be custodial or non-custodial fathers/mothers, married or unmarried, co-habiting fathers/mothers, or non-resident fathers/mothers.
- The sentencing guidelines should be amended to provide judges authority to depart from the recommended guideline sentence when appropriate to address the needs of the children that would be adversely affected by incarceration of their mother or father.
- The sentencing laws/guidelines should be amended to enable (1) the court to inquire whether the person is a parent; (2) if the individual is a parent, the court should be encouraged to hear and consider what the impact of incarcerating the parent will be on their children through the means of a Family Responsibility Statement; and (3) after assessing all the facts before him or her, a sentencing judge should be encouraged to exercise sound judicial discretion with respect to sentencing a parent to an alternative to a prison term.
- When considering legislative proposals that will affect sentencing and correctional policy, lawmakers must be given estimates of the impacts on the children of individuals directly affected.
- Amend the Second Chance Act/pertinent state re-entry legislation to allow for a prison-based option that allows the Department of Corrections to transfer an offender home on electronic monitoring for up to the last 12 months of his or her prison sentence in order to parent.
 Justice Strategies, Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Cost of Parental Incarceration. http://www.justicestrategies.net/publications/2011/children-outside-voicing-pain-and-human-costs-parental-incarceration
 Federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Responsible Fatherhood Opportunities for Reentry and Mobility Grant.