The nature of the parent-child relationship is a crucial factor for a child’s overall well-being, both during childhood and extending into adulthood. When a parent is incarcerated, that relationship is threatened and children are often left in an unstable environment, causing them to suffer the consequences of their parent’s incarceration in myriad ways.
During criminal justice proceedings, the crime and its punishment are all too often the only two factors considered—overlooking the consequences that sentencing and geographic prison placement will have on the children or family of the accused. This is an unfortunate oversight as the effects of having an incarcerated parent can be equally as traumatic for a child as experiencing divorce, abuse or domestic violence.6
Considering the rapid growth of both the federal and state prison populations across the country in more recent history, it is essential to understand the effects that a parent’s incarceration has on a child. Simply put, higher prison populations mean that more parents are incarcerated and that more children are negatively affected.
While the effects of a parent’s incarceration vary based on a child’s specific situation and the supports available to them, negative consequences have been echoed in conversations with family after family.
Financial Burden: A family’s income drops by an average of 22% when a father is incarcerated, and on average remains 15% lower even when the father is released from prison.7
Sense of Shame: Shame is often induced by judgment from a child’s peers or other members of their community.8
Strained Relationship With Incarcerated Parent: Around 60% of parents in state prisons are held over 100 miles from their previous residence.9 This makes it difficult for a child to maintain regular contact with their parent, which could otherwise help minimize the trauma associated with a parent’s incarceration.
Behavioral Problems: Behavioral concerns may arise during this tumultuous period of a child’s life.10 However, it is important to note that perpetuating the stigma that the child themselves is now destined for a “life of crime” can be damaging, and communities should instead work to properly support struggling children.
CONSEQUENCES FOLLOWING INCARCERATION
Difficulties in Transition: Parents returning from their incarceration might have difficulty adjusting to life at home and could find themselves to be emotionally distant from family members, including their children.
Criminal Justice Debt: With the average conviction-related costs (including fees, fines and other payments) for one person being $13,607, up to 85% of people return from prison with criminal justice debt12—money that they owe for being convicted of a crime which also accrues at a time when they have little to no income. This results in fewer resources for the family and children, placing an additional strain on the household.
Lifelong Consequences: The detrimental effects of parental incarceration continue into adulthood as well. It is one of several adverse childhood experiences that can be associated with higher rates of poor health, low life satisfaction, depression and anxiety among other concerns.13
The children most likely to have an incarcerated parent are often already the most vulnerable—children from families with low incomes and from communities of color. This disparity is due to a number of factors, one being the systemic racism encompassed by the more recent “War on Drugs.” In fact, African-Americans are around three and four times more likely to be arrested for possessing and selling drugs, respectively, despite being no more likely to sell or use drugs than Whites are.14
HOW CAN WE HELP?
It must be our priority to meet the needs of children who are faced with the many challenges caused by having an incarcerated parent. There is much that community members and policymakers can do to offer proper support to these children:
- Communities and individuals must ensure that families are able to care for children both during and after a parent’s incarceration while also crafting an environment where children feel free from judgment and instead feel safe sharing their experiences and emotions.
- Schools, faith-based organizations and other local groups must work closely with families and the criminal justice system to create multidimensional support for children and their families.
- The criminal justice system must work to preserve the family unit—considering the child’s well-being during the arrest and sentencing, allowing children reasonable access to their parent during incarceration, and utilizing prison time to empower the parent to be able to provide for their family after their incarceration.
In their policy report, A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation offers these policy recommendations to alleviate the consequences faced by children of incarcerated parents:
- Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.
- Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment.
- Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.
Download A Shared Sentence: www.mlpp.org/kids-count/michigan/a-shared-sentence.
- The Sentencing Project. State-by-State Data. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from http://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#map.
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016, April). A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities, 2. Baltimore, MD.
- Michigan Department of Corrections. (2016, August 23). 2015 Statistical Report. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/MDOC_2015_Statistical_Report_-_2016.08.23_532907_7.pdf.
- United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts Table: Michigan. Retrieved June 13, 2017 from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/RHI125215/26.
- The Prisoner Reimbursement to the County Act, Mich. Comp. Laws. 801.83 (1984).
- Hairston, C.F. (2007). Focus on the children with incarcerated parents: An overview of the research literature. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 18.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2010). Collateral costs: Incarceration’s effect on economic mobility. Washington, DC: Author.
- Hairston, C.F., op. cit.
- Mauer, M., Nellis, A., Schirmir, S.; Incarcerated Parents and Their Children – Trends 1991 – 2007, The Sentencing Project, Feb. 2009.
- Allard, P., Greene, J.; Children on the outside: Voicing the pain and human costs of parental incarceration, Justice Strategies, Jan. 2011.
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation, op. cit.
- Saneta deVuono-powell, Chris Schweidler, Alicia Walters, and Azadeh Zohrabi. Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families. Oakland, CA: Ella Baker Center, Forward Together, Research Action Design, 2015.
- Mersky JP, Topitzes J, Reynolds AJ. Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: a cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the U.S. Child Abuse Neglect. 2013;37 (11):917–25.
- Rothwell, J. (2014). How the war on drugs damages black social mobility. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.