ABF convenes conference on effects of parental incarceration on children

Leading national experts gathered at the White House on Aug. 20 to examine the effects of incarcerated parents on their children. The conference, “Parental Incarceration in the United States: Bringing Together Research and Policy to Reduce Collateral Costs to Children,” was jointly sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Led by John Hagan, a research professor at the American Bar Foundation and the John D. MacArthur professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, and his co-author, Holly Foster, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, the conference aimed to (1) review current knowledge about parental imprisonment and child well-being, (2) document programs designed to reduce negative effects of parental incarceration on children, (3) address problems stemming from parental involvement with the justice system, and (4) identify best practices for improving the lives of children of incarcerated parents.

“The overarching goal of the conference is to inform efforts to mitigate costs to a generation of affected children,” Hagan said.

Hagan and Foster were joined by Christopher Wildeman, a Yale University sociologist; Sara Wakefield, a criminal justice scholar at Rutgers University; Joyce Arditti, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech; California state Sen. Mark Leno; and Judge Bernice B. Donald of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, among about 20 other leading scholars, policymakers and practitioners.

The relevance of the conference was underscored by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who addressed the American Bar Association Annual Meeting the week before, calling for major reforms in the criminal justice system and decrying the overpopulation of nonviolent offenders in prisons. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it,” he said.

The exchanges among the experts on the high cost of incarceration to children and to American society were based on some sobering statistics:

• About half of all imprisoned people in the United States are parents.

• Parental incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color.

• 1 in 4 black children have had an incarcerated parent.

• 1 in 2 black children of high school dropout fathers have had an incarcerated parent versus that of roughly 1 in 13 white children of high school dropout fathers.

• The overall U.S. college graduation rate of 40 percent drops to about 1 to 2 percent among children of mothers who are imprisoned.

• About 15 percent of the children of imprisoned fathers graduate from college.

• Children of incarcerated parents also demonstrate difficulty transitioning to successful adult lives, showing high rates of unemployment, lower educational achievement and greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system themselves.

Recommendations coming out of the conference for improvement to the outcomes for children of incarcerated parents called for greater cooperation between researchers, advocates, policymakers and practitioners.
Emily Bever Nichols of the University of Virginia recommended that “policy and programming should focus on expanding school-based services and dropout prevention for youth with household member incarceration.” 
She added that judges should be made aware of these unintended consequences for children.

Similarly, Myrna Raeder, a professor of law at Southwestern Law School, urged that “judges should be better trained concerning the impact of parental incarceration on children to take better advantage of their discretion in sentencing, particularly when the defendant has committed a nonviolent crime and has sole or primary parenting responsibility.” She argued that to sustain parent-child contact, “judges should have the power to take distance from home into account in sentencing, as well as the power to decide where a prisoner should be housed.”

A formal report on the conference outcome is forthcoming.

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