Parental incarceration: what we know and where we need to go.

Author:Uggen, Christopher
Position:Parents Behind Bars, part 1


Incarceration in the United States ripples outward to affect families, communities, and markets. (1) But when television programs like Sesame Street begin tackling topics such as parental incarceration, it sends a clear signal that the issue has also penetrated public consciousness. (2) At such moments, it is increasingly urgent for researchers to share what we have learned. Although responsible scholars are often more comfortable telling us what we do not know than what we do know, (3) the recent wave of research has established five important facts about parental incarceration. This Article reviews the knowledge presented at a 2013 workshop, "Parental Incarceration in the United States: Bringing Together Research and Policy to Reduce Collateral Costs to Children," (4) while outlining a basic programmatic agenda for further inquiry and policy change. Conveying these basic facts to broader audiences represents an important step toward aligning policy with research--and, ultimately, ameliorating the negative effects of parental incarceration on children. As we describe below, there may be no more compelling and urgent prerogative for researchers, policymakers, and advocates in the field of criminal justice.


    Change. The first and most basic story to be told concerns the enormous rise in parental incarceration over the last generation, such that more kids are affected today than ever before. To a great extent, this rise is the result of sentencing choices rather than a rise in crime rates. (5) Consistent with imprisonment patterns for adults, the rate of children with an incarcerated parent has more than doubled in the last generation. (6) As a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study noted, "2.7 million children have a parent behind bars--1 in every 28 children (3.6 percent) has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago." (7) This has enormous implications for how we treat the parents in our prisons, the children in our schools, and conduct our daily lives. Communities of color have long been disproportionately impacted by incarceration in the United States. Today, scholars such as Chris Wildeman and Sara Wakefield have shown how parental incarceration is similarly concentrated among African-American children and children of less-educated parents, (8) which likely worsens racial disparities in child well-being. (9)

    Real Parents. The second point is that many, if not most, incarcerated parents were not "absent" or uninvolved in their children's lives before prison. As Amanda Geller points out, most incarcerated parents have contact with their children. (10) A full 42% of incarcerated fathers and 60% of mothers lived with their children prior to incarceration, (11) and another 40% of nonresident, ever-incarcerated fathers had regular visitation with their children. (12) To a large extent, then, incarcerated parents were parenting, assuming the responsibilities associated with providing for and raising their children. Still, this is not to imply that their pre-incarceration family lives were always good or even acceptable. There are warm and loving families, as well as abusive and neglectful families, throughout every social stratum, and families with incarcerated parents well reflect this diversity. (13) Separation often precedes incarceration, and sometimes the separation is necessary to protect children. (14) But the basic fact of parental contact should dispel the myth that incarcerated parents had "checked out" and are not real parents worthy of some degree of trust and consideration. As Philip Genty's workshop presentation pointed out, there is a yawning gap between the science and the public perceptions of the real and the hypothetical incarcerated parent and child. (15) If we are to ameliorate the effects of parental incarceration, it is critically important for policymakers and citizens to not only see the children as sympathetic and worthy of our concern, but to also see their parents, their families, and their caregivers as human beings with legitimate rights and interests.

    An Unjust Disadvantage. The third point is perhaps the most fundamental: through no fault of their own, kids with incarcerated parents are at a terrible disadvantage. Because of the work of the researchers gathered at the workshop, we can make this statement much more confidently today than we could ten years ago. Back then, we might have believed and felt in our bones that incarcerated children were disadvantaged, but our research now demonstrates it. For example, children of incarcerated parents have more of what psychologists call "internalizing" problems (like depression (16)), and they also have more "externalizing" problems (like aggression and delinquency (17)). They have more long-term physical health problems, including migraines, asthma, and high cholesterol. (18) They have more school problems...

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