NEW YORK –Losing a parent to a prison sentence resembles the trauma of losing a parent to death or divorce and is compounded by social stigma and limited public support, according to new research detailing parental incarceration’s impact on children. “Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration,” a new report from Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization pursuing more humane and cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration law enforcement, provides first-hand accounts of the harm experienced by some of the 1.7 million minor children with a parent in prison, a population that has grown with the explosion of the U.S. prison population.
“When they do time we also do time. Just because we’re not in there doesn’t mean we don’t do time. Because you’re not with us, we also do time,” explained Araya, a teen girl with an incarcerated father.
The report details the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents, whose experience of grief and loss is compounded by economic insecurity, family instability, a compromised sense of self-worth, attachment and trust problems, and social stigmatization when their parents are incarcerated. The report also outlines the ways in which parental incarceration can influence negative outcomes for youth, including mental health problems, possible school failure and unemployment, and antisocial and delinquent behavior.
“Too often, society dismisses the children of incarcerated parents as future liabilities to public safety while overlooking opportunities to address the pain and trauma with which these children struggle,” said Patricia Allard, co-author of the report. “It is by tackling the psychological and emotional trauma head-on that we not only aid these children to grow into our future mothers, fathers, taxpayers and workers, but also ensure more stable and thriving communities.”
As with the punitive consequences of our mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration policies, the impact of parental incarceration falls disproportionately on children of color. African American children are seven times and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.
Prepared by Patricia Allard and Judith Greene, “Children on the Outside” urges a shift from failed tough on crime policies toward a public health and safety strategy that includes evidence-based treatment options and reducing reliance on incarceration. Additionally, the report outlines concrete tactics that can help to moderate the negative impact of parental incarceration on children and points to existing and promising approaches for cost-effective criminal justice policies that promote community health and safety. To illustrate this point the report compares New York, which has downsized prisons through drug reform, saved money, and seen larger decreases in crime with Alabama, a state with higher incarceration rates.
“States have long struggled with the enormous fiscal expense of prisons, but now we’re finding an entirely new human cost that has been previously overlooked,” continued Allard. “When it comes to wasteful policies that bloat prisons without improving safety, we can’t afford to look the other way. We need to find ways to care for the young people who have already lost their parents to prison, and more importantly, stop needlessly separating parents from children when other safe options exist.”
Key findings from the report include:
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that by 2007, more than half (53 percent) of the 1.5 million prisoners in the U.S. were parents of minor children – translating into more than 1.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. This represents an increase of 80 percent since 1991.
Nearly one quarter of these children are age four or younger, and more than a third will become adults while their parent remains behind bars.
Parental imprisonment is associated with:
· Three times the odds that children will engage in antisocial or delinquent behavior (violence or drug abuse).
· Negative outcomes as children and adults (school failure and unemployment).
· Twice the odds of developing serious mental health problems.
Data compiled at BJS shows that the acute problem of racial disparity behind bars is also reflected among the children of incarcerated parents, with black children seven and a half times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.
While only one in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent who was imprisoned, one in four black children born that year had a parent imprisoned.
About the authors:
PATRICIA ALLARD is Deputy Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. For the past ten years she has worked in the United States advocating for criminal justice and drug policy reform — with a particular emphasis on the needs of low-income women and women of color, at the Sentencing Project and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
JUDITH GREENE is a criminal justice policy analyst and a founding partner in Justice Strategies. Over the past decade she has received a Soros Senior Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, served as a research associate for the RAND Corporation, as a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School, and as director of the State-Centered Program for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. From 1985 to 1993 she was Director of Court Programs at the Vera Institute of Justice.
Justice Strategies, a project of the Tides Center, Inc., is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization whose mission is to provide high quality policy research to advocates and policymakers pursuing more humane and cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration law enforcement.