Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Through expert analysis and first-hand testimony from children, parents and care-givers, Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration uncovers the devastating impact of parental incarceration on youth and the broader community and points to smart approaches to reduce prison populations and assist children. This new Justice Strategies report 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[.]

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 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.

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. The report provides concrete steps 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.

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.

Press contact: Matt Nelson at: mattnelsoncoc@gmail.com, or (414) 721-6630