Monday, September 23, 2013

The Far-Reaching Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children

September is National Recovery Month, a time to promote the societal benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental and substance use disorders, celebrate people in recovery, laud the contributions of treatment and service providers, and promote the message that recovery in all its forms is possible. Nowhere is this emphasis on recovery more profound and necessary than for families involved with the criminal justice system, because of the far-reaching impact that incarceration has on parents, their children and future generations. Nonviolent offenders with drug-related charges would be much better served by drug treatment rather than mandatory minimum sentences, which do little to rehabilitate individuals or to increase public safety.  In fact, incarceration can have the opposite effect.

In line with this view, last month Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Justice Department would cease pursing mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.  Citing racial disparities, prison overcrowding as well as the related economic and social impacts, Holder questioned some assumptions about the criminal justice system's approach to the "war on drugs," saying that excessive incarceration has been an "ineffective and unsustainable" part of it.

In their article in the Future of Children, authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western compiled multiple sources of research to describe the intergenerational effects of imprisonment on inequality. Research on adult men suggests that imprisonment diminishes their earnings, disrupts their romantic unions, and compromises their health. Likewise, the imprisonment of a partner, on average, compromises the well-being of those who are left behind. Parental incarceration has been linked to increased physical aggression in boys, and criminality and delinquency throughout the life course.

Many studies have considered the consequences of parental incarceration for children’s behavioral problems more broadly. Having a parent incarcerated causes children of all ages to express a mix of internalizing behaviors, such as being anxious, depressed, or withdrawn, and/or externalizing behaviors, such as acting out or having temper tantrums. The internalizing behaviors tend to occur in older children, but the externalizing behaviors hold across the life course.

Not only does parental incarceration affect children’s behavior, but it is associated with other social problems that can lead to severe marginalization in childhood and adolescence. Children of incarcerated parents are at elevated risk of homelessness, foster care placement, and infant mortality. Maternal incarceration may have even more substantial effects on foster care placement than paternal incarceration does, a risk especially high for African-American children.

In an effort to keep families together whenever possible and to further the action taken by Attorney General Holder, policymakers can support several policies that will decrease children’s exposure to having a parent incarcerated:
  • Limit prison time so that nonviolent drug offenders are not needlessly exposed to the psychological damage of incarceration, are free to work and earn an income, and spend time with their families.
  • Provide effective drug treatment for nonviolent drug offenders to support their recovery, enabling them to improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.
  • Identify and address substance use disorders early on. Research shows that for every $1.00 invested in prevention and early treatment programs, $2.00 to $10.00 could be saved in health costs, criminal and juvenile justice costs, educational costs, and lost productivity.

Providing drug treatment is a family strengthening policy that rehabilitates individuals, promotes the integrity of the family, and furthers  the justice system’s goal of public safety. For more policies related to reducing incarceration, including promoting workforce strategies for reintegrating ex-offenders, see It is also important to consider alternatives to detention for juveniles.  Brain science has shown that juveniles are resilient and are very likely to be successfully rehabilitated with appropriate interventions.   Many juveniles are also parents, and thus strategies to reduce juvenile detention will prevent the youngest generation from inheriting the stressors associated with the incarceration of their young parents.

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