When Adults Go to Prison, Kids Pay the Price

A new report recommends considering the children of defendants during the sentencing process.
(Photo: Pat Canova/Getty Images)
Apr 25, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

You may have heard that 2.2 million people are locked up in prison or jails in the U.S.—more than in any other country. But there’s another, bigger number that’s often overlooked: 5 million. That’s the number of children in the U.S. who have had a parent incarcerated. A new report sheds light on how the absence of a parent can have a lasting effect on a child left behind—and what needs to be done to address the problem.

“Incarceration affects more than just the person who’s being sentenced,” Ryan Chao of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which published the report, told TakePart.

While criminal justice reform and mass incarceration have become hot-button topics in recent years, garnering bipartisan support from lawmakers and sparking debate, Chao and his colleagues noticed a void in the discussion.

“There was less attention paid in these recent conversations to recognizing the impact of incarceration on both families and communities,” he said. “Often the arguments are pointed more around general fairness in the eyes of the law rather than the collateral effects.”

Those collateral effects take a major toll on kids. The report, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families, and Communities, documents the emotional impact and financial instability created by the absence of an incarcerated parent. The uncertainty caused by losing a parent to prison can provoke trauma and anxiety that may be aggravated by living conditions in low-income, high-crime communities, according to the report.

Chao and his colleagues point to Hawaii as one model for reform. A 2007 law requires the corrections department’s director of public safety to work with the judge during the sentencing process to take into consideration the best interest of the members of the defendant’s family left behind, rather than just the victim and the community. The proximity of a prison to family members is considered part of a broader plan to maximize a parent’s ability to maintain bonds with his or her children while incarcerated. It’s a holistic approach to sentencing that is rarely seen elsewhere.

The report also recommends that prisons consistently provide parenting courses and family counseling to parents while they are behind bars.

Opportunities and resources that are denied to people with criminal records upon their release—such as access to affordable housing, education, and jobs—have a ripple effect that reaches family members too.

“If you lock [a formerly incarcerated person] out of that opportunity, it’s not just that person—it’s a whole family that’s been locked out of opportunity,” said Chao.

Children with unemployed parents are more likely to live in poverty, making access to the workforce essential for parents with criminal records. Adding to the deprivation, in some states, people with criminal records can’t access public assistance such as food stamps. This punishment effectively extends to the children of the person who has served time. Chao is heartened by the progress of “ban the box” campaigns around the country, which give people with past felony convictions a fair shot at the job application process.