Children of Incarcerated Parents

Children of Incarcerated Parents

By Steve Christian

March 2009

The nation’s growing prison and jail population has raised serious questions about the collateral effects of incarceration on children, families and communities. Whatever one’s views about the appropriate role of incarceration in the criminal justice system, it is clear that imprisonment disrupts positive, nurturing relationships between many parents—particularly mothers—and their children. In addition, many families with children suffer economic strain and instability when a parent is imprisoned.

Research suggests that intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield positive societal benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less intergenerational criminal justice system involvement, and promotion of healthy child development. In the words of one prominent researcher, “[s]tudies. . . indicate that families are important to prisoners and to the achievement of major social goals, including the prevention of recidivism and delinquency.”1  Because this area is fraught with major data gaps, it is recommended that policymakers begin their exploration of the subject by posing a series of questions to their staffs and the heads of agencies with jurisdiction over law enforcement, corrections, child welfare, education and welfare, as well as child advocates, the university community and others who have an interest in ensuring the well-being of children whose parents are in custody.

This report proposes a list of such questions, each followed by a discussion that is intended, not so much as a definitive answer, but as general background information. The information identifies only general trends, since specific answers to the questions posed will differ by state, depending on factors such as the existing policy context and service array, demographic trends and available data. Read the full report here.


What is the nature and scope of the problem?  1
How many children have a parent in prison and how many incarcerated parents have children?     1
What do we know about these children’s race and age?   2
How does parental incarceration affect children?     2
How are children in foster care affected by the incarceration of a parent?      5
What are the challenges to children and parents associated with discharge from prison?  7
What policy options are available to state legislators to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents?    7
What can the legislature do to improve collaboration among the stakeholders that must be involved in efforts to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents?         


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