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A Shared Sentence - The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, AECF, 2016

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A SHARED SENTENCE
the devastating toll of parental
incarceration on kids,
families and communities

APRIL 2016

policy
report
KIDS COUNT

ABOUT THE
ANNIE E. CASEY
FOUNDATION
AND KIDS COUNT

To order this report, visit
www.aecf.org/sharedsentence.

To find additional data on
children and families, visit the
KIDS COUNT Data Center at
datacenter.kidscount.org.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is
a private philanthropy that creates a
brighter future for the nation’s children
by developing solutions to strengthen
families, build paths to economic
opportunity and transform struggling
communities into safer and healthier
places to live, work and grow. To learn
more, visit www.aecf.org.

®

KIDS COUNT , a project of the

Annie E. Casey Foundation, is a national
and state-by-state effort to track the
status of children in the United States.
By providing policymakers and citizens
with benchmarks of child well-being,
KIDS COUNT seeks to enrich local, state
and national discussions concerning ways
to secure better futures for all children. To
learn more, visit www.aecf.org/kidscount.

A SHARED SENTENCE

the devastating toll of parental incarceration
on kids, families and communities

The saying is all too familiar: Do the crime, do the time.
But in America’s age of mass incarceration, millions of children
are suffering the consequences of their parents’ sentences
and our nation’s tough-on-crime practices.
These children feel the absence of that
adult — whether it is several nights in jail
or years in prison — in myriad ways, even
if they weren’t sharing a home.1 They feel it
when their refrigerator is bare because their
family has lost a source of income or child
support. They feel it when they have to
move, sometimes repeatedly, because their
families can no longer afford the rent or
mortgage. And they feel it when they hear
the whispers in school, at church or in their
neighborhood about where their mother or
father has gone.
Incarceration breaks up families, the
building blocks of our communities and
nation. It creates an unstable environment
for kids that can have lasting effects on
their development and well-being.2 These
challenges can reverberate and multiply
in their often low-income neighborhoods,
especially if they live in a community
where a significant number of residents,
particularly men, are in or returning from
jail or prison.3 And different obstacles
emerge once parents are released and try to
assume their roles as caregivers, employees
and neighbors.

This report recommends policies and
practices that put the needs of children of
incarcerated parents first. We call on correctional systems, communities and state
and local public agencies to help stabilize
families and preserve their connections
during incarceration — and successfully
move forward once parents come home.
As the U.S. prison population surged
during the past several decades, so too did
the number of children and families experiencing the consequences of having a loved
one incarcerated.4 From 1980 to 2000, the
number of kids with a father in prison or
jail rose by 500 percent.5 Now more than
5 million children have had a parent
incarcerated at some point in their lives,
including 503,000 in California, 477,000
in Texas and 312,000 in Florida. The situation is even worse in many other states,
especially Kentucky, which has the highest
rate of children — 13 percent — who have
had a parent incarcerated.6
There is no question that our country’s
practice of mass incarceration is flawed,
costly and in need of change. Policymakers
on both sides of the aisle have pushed for

A SHARED SENTENCE

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

1

Jail vs. Prison
While definitions vary by state,
jails generally fall under local
jurisdiction. They confine
individuals who are awaiting
trial or sentencing, or who have
sentences shorter than one year,
usually for misdemeanors. Prisons
are state or federal facilities for
individuals who have committed
felonies or have sentences longer
than one year.7 Although our focus
is primarily on children whose parents are serving prison sentences,
jail time can be equally disruptive
to families, making it difficult for
remaining caregivers to maintain
a job, housing and child care.

2

better solutions,8 and several states have
overhauled their correctional systems, favoring less costly alternatives for addressing
nonviolent offenses, while maintaining
public safety.9 Many advocacy efforts also
recognize the wildly disproportionate
impact of the criminal justice system on
people of color, especially African-American
men, who are far more likely to be arrested
and spend time behind bars.10 As a result,
children of color are inevitably more likely
to contend with having a parent in prison.11
Yet policy debates about incarceration
rarely focus on the burden borne by children
and families. Theirs are stories of things lost:
connections, jobs, income, homes — and
hope. And communities, in turn, suffer
from losing so many parents, whose absence
leaves the economic and social fabric of their
neighborhoods in tatters.
While momentum for criminal justice
reform continues to build, we know progress
will take time. But we also know children
can’t wait — nor can we as a nation afford
to let them and their parents flounder,
perpetuating poverty from one generation
to the next.12 Children need stability and
support to minimize the impact of incarceration on their lives, which requires families
and communities equipped to properly
care for them, as well as parents prepared
to provide for them and contribute to their
communities upon release.

Nationally, the number of kids who
have had a parent in jail or prison at some
point in their childhood hovers around
5.1 million — a conservative estimate.
Among states, the percentage of children
with an incarcerated parent varies dramatically, from only 3 percent in New Jersey
to 13 percent in Kentucky.13
Overwhelmingly, incarcerated parents
are fathers, many of them young. In state
and federal prisons, about 45 percent of

men age 24 or younger are fathers. For
the same age group, about 48 percent of
women in federal prison and 55 percent
in state facilities are mothers. Although
the percentages are higher for women,
the actual numbers of mothers behind
bars are a fraction of those for fathers,
mirroring the total prison population.14
The number of children with a father
in prison rose by more than half between
1991 and 2007, and those with a mother
behind bars more than doubled.
Children with a parent who is incarcerated are typically younger and living
in low-income families of color, usually
with a young single mother who has
limited education.15 Most are younger
than 10. More than 15 percent of children
with parents in federal prison — and
more than 20 percent with parents in state
prison — are 4 or younger.16 Compared
with their white peers, African-American
and Latino kids are over seven and two
times more likely, respectively, to have a
parent incarcerated.17 Although national
data on American Indian children are
unavailable, state trends show a similar pattern: American Indian kids in Oklahoma
are twice as likely as white children to have
an incarcerated parent and about five times
more likely in the Dakotas.18
Even if parents were not living with
their children before incarceration, more
than half provided the primary financial
support.19 Children with incarcerated
mothers are more likely than those with
incarcerated fathers to end up living with
grandparents or family friends or in foster
care — and, as a result, tend to experience
greater disruption and instability.20
Kids with incarcerated parents also
are significantly less likely to live in neighborhoods that are able to be supportive
of families. Their parents are more likely to
report feeling unsafe in their communities
and less likely to feel they have people
on whom they can rely for help with
their children.21

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES
LEFT BEHIND

WHAT PARENTAL INCARCERATION
MEANS FOR KIDS, THEIR FAMILIES
AND COMMUNITIES
For children and families, incarceration
is not a one-time event but a daily reality
that lasts well beyond a jail sentence or
prison term. Without links between and
among the criminal justice system and
schools, neighborhood health centers and
other community- and faith-based agencies
and programs, families have little to guide
them through this time.

An Added Financial Burden

In addition, children of incarcerated
parents move more frequently than their
peers, even more so when both parents are
imprisoned.30 Kids with fathers in prison,
particularly African-American children,
are at greater risk of ending up homeless.31
Indeed, research suggests the rise in
incarceration over several decades has
contributed to a significant increase in
child homelessness, especially among
African Americans.32 Housing instability
disrupts connections with family, friends,
schools and other support networks.33

A Blow to Child and Family Health
and Well-Being

Incarceration is a destabilizer, pushing
families teetering on the edge into
financial disaster. Losing a parent who is
the breadwinner, often for a prolonged
period, leaves families scrambling to cover
basic needs along with legal and other
court fees.22 When fathers are incarcerated,
family income can drop by an average of
22 percent.23 When no parent remains to
care for a child, extended family members
step in — often without proper support.24
This loss of income creates ripples
that grow into waves. Families who
already relied on public programs, such
as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program and Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families, become increasingly
dependent on them.25 As they shoulder
more responsibilities to fill the breach,
parents and other relatives can struggle
to manage their finances and face reduced
earning potential.26 Parents left behind
are more likely to cite problems with child
care as a reason for quitting or not taking
a job.27 Mothers also report being unable
to pay for necessities such as food, utilities,
rent and medical care for their children.28
A recent survey found that 65 percent of
families with a member in prison or jail
could not meet basic needs. Thousands
of dollars in court-related fines and
fees, along with costly visits to maintain
contact, landed nearly one-third in debt.29

Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful,
traumatic experience of the same magnitude
as abuse, domestic violence and divorce,
with a potentially lasting negative impact on
a child’s well-being.34 These young children
lose a parent’s support during their critical
early years, a time when their families and
communities should be laying the foundation for healthy development and success.35
Their bonds to that parent are weakened,
or sometimes never formed, as distance
may keep them from making regular
visits. The loss of that bond is especially
devastating for children with incarcerated
mothers.36 The trauma of being separated
from a parent, along with a lack of sympathy or support from others, can increase
children’s mental health issues, such as
depression and anxiety, and hamper educational achievement.37 Kids of incarcerated
mothers, in particular, are at greater risk
of dropping out of school.38 Teachers can
further undermine children’s performance
and self-esteem by lowering their academic
expectations.39 And when these kids grow
up, they are more likely to contend with
poor mental and physical health.40
Single mothers left to take on unexpected financial responsibilities41 may also
suffer from poor health, addiction, depression or anxiety, or they may be dealing with
their own traumatic experiences.42 Bearing

A SHARED SENTENCE

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

	 Having a parent
incarcerated is a stressful,
traumatic experience
of the same magnitude
as abuse, domestic
violence and divorce.

3

those conflicted emotions and stress makes
it all the more challenging to be the port
in a storm for their children.

A Drain on Community Resources
and Opportunity

	 If incarceration rates
hadn’t increased during
a 24-year period, the
U.S. poverty rate would
have fallen by 20 percent,
rather than remaining
relatively steady.

The communities where children live don’t
go unscathed, either. Many are mired in
poverty and contend with crime, poorquality housing, low-performing schools and
a dearth of resources that further prevent
families from creating a safe and nurturing
home environment.43 The effects of incarceration exacerbate the situation.44 One
study found that if incarceration rates hadn’t
increased during a 24-year period, the U.S.
poverty rate would have fallen by 20 percent,
rather than remaining relatively steady.45
In areas where a sizable portion of
residents are behind bars, the effect is cumulative: The sheer number of absent people
depletes available workers and providers,
while constraining the entire community’s
access to opportunity — including individuals who have never been incarcerated.46
The continual cycle of residents going to and
returning from prison makes for places, and
faces, constantly in flux.47 Just living in a
neighborhood with a high incarceration rate
increases residents’ chances of suffering from
depression and anxiety.48 Even for residents
who have had no contact with the criminal
justice system, heightened police vigilance
can cast a shadow over their children, families and homes. And the absence of parents,
most of them fathers, weakens neighborhoods and tears apart social networks,
which, in turn, affects the local economy.49
Parents’ inability to find work when they
return home further destabilizes their
communities and increases their likelihood
of reverting to criminal activity.

Barriers to Housing. Returning parents

bars limits parents’ options for steady

struggle to find or maintain safe, stable
housing for their families or, if they live
apart, just for themselves. Although the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development’s public housing regulations
permit them as residents, local housing
authorities can exercise discretion — and
frequently do, with blanket bans on people
with criminal records. Private landlords
automatically reject these individuals without considering whether their criminal
histories pose any danger to other residents.55
All of these challenges — financial
and housing instability, stress, emotional
difficulties, broken family relationships
and communities ill-equipped to bolster
children amid great uncertainty — are a
minefield nearly impossible for kids to
traverse without incident. Changes in state
and federal policies, as well as targeted
reinvestment of funds saved from recent
criminal justice reform efforts, can significantly change the trajectory of children
with a parent in prison, helping them
navigate choppy waters with greater ease.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

New Obstacles for Families
When Parents Return
Barriers to Employment. Time behind

4

employment that pays well enough to
support their kids. Their lack of training
or work experience and an interrupted
or illegitimate employment history,
combined with typically low literacy
levels and educational attainment, close
the doors to most family-supporting jobs.50
Having to check the box on a job application that confirms their criminal record
seals those doors tight.51
As a result, when parents who have
spent time in prison can find jobs, they
work fewer weeks annually and earn less
than their counterparts without a record.52
Two-thirds of formerly incarcerated men
at the bottom of the income ladder in 1986
remained there two decades later.53 Families
with fathers who have been incarcerated
are more likely to live in poverty than
those who have never experienced the
effects of incarceration.54

TABLE 1

Children Who Have Experienced Parental Incarceration: 2011–2012
Nationally, the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood hovers around
5.1 million — a conservative estimate. Kids with incarcerated parents are significantly less likely to live in neighborhoods
that are able to be supportive of families.

Total
	

Number	

Total
Percentage

	

Number	

Percentage

5,113,000	7

Missouri	

98,000	7

Alabama	

88,000	8

Montana	

18,000	8

Alaska	

18,000	10

Nebraska	

41,000	9

Arizona	

138,000	9

Nevada	

55,000	8

Arkansas	

61,000	9

New Hampshire	

15,000	5

United States	

California	

503,000	5

New Jersey	

65,000	3

Colorado	

60,000	5

New Mexico	

52,000	10

Connecticut	

36,000	5

New York	

148,000	4

Delaware	

15,000	8

North Carolina	

179,000	8

9,000	8

North Dakota	

District of Columbia	

10,000	7

Florida	

312,000	8

Ohio	

Georgia	

189,000	8

Oklahoma	

96,000	10

Hawaii	

16,000	5

Oregon	

68,000	8

Idaho	

35,000	8

Pennsylvania	

181,000	7

Illinois	

186,000	6

Rhode Island	

10,000	5

Indiana	

177,000	11

South Carolina	

73,000	7

58,000	8

South Dakota	

17,000	8

45,000	6

Iowa	

271,000	10

Tennessee	

144,000	10

Kentucky	

135,000	13

Texas	

477,000	7

Louisiana	

94,000	8

Utah	

44,000	5

Maine	

20,000	8

Vermont	

Maryland	

82,000	6

Virginia	

103,000	6

Massachusetts	

69,000	5

Washington	

109,000	7

Michigan	

228,000	10

West Virginia	

34,000	9

Minnesota	

67,000	5

Wisconsin	

88,000	7

Mississippi	

55,000	7

Wyoming	

12,000	9

Kansas	

7,000	6

	 SOURCE Child Trends’ analysis of the 2011–12 National Survey of Children’s Health for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. These data only include children whose incarcerated parent lived with them at some point.

A SHARED SENTENCE

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

5

Incarceration’s Toll on Communities
A closer look at three U.S. cities
reinforces these points and reveals how
dramatically the impact of incarceration
varies from one neighborhood to another.
Yet certain themes transcend population
size and geography. Communities with
a consistently high and disproportionate
rate of people returning from prison tend to
have larger percentages of African-American
residents, echoing our criminal justice
system’s uneven impact on people of color.
They also often have the highest child
poverty rates in their cities.

While incarceration hits children and their
families hard, their communities also feel the
blow. Many are already mired in poverty and
contend with crime, poor-quality housing, lowperforming schools and a dearth of resources
that further prevent families from creating a safe
and nurturing home environment. The effects
of incarceration exacerbate the situation,
particularly in areas where a sizable portion of
residents are behind bars. The sheer number
of absent people can constrain an entire community’s access to opportunity — including
individuals who have never been incarcerated.

ATLANTA
Atlanta is organized into 25 neighborhood planning units (NPUs). NPUs J, L,
V and Z represent 11 percent of the city’s
population but are home to 25 percent
of its residents returning from prison.
All four communities, which are mostly
African American, exceed the city’s
average child poverty rate, and NPUs L,
V and Z more than double it. By contrast,
only about 1 percent of returning individuals live in the majority-white NPU-E,
although its population is nearly the
same as the other four areas combined.
All but two of Atlanta’s predominantly
African-American communities have
higher-than-average percentages
of residents returning from prison.

NPU-A
NPU-B
NPU-C
NPU-D

NPU-F

NPU-G

NPU-E
NPU-J

NPU-H
NPU-I
NPU-Q

NPU-L
NPU-K
NPU-T

NPU-N

NPU-M

NPU-O
NPU-W

NPU-V

NPU-S
NPU-R

NPU-X

NPU-Y

PRISON RELEASES
PER 1,000 ADULTS

0–1.88
2.48–4.71

NPU-P
NPU-Z

6.28–7.58
9.17–13.81

SOURCE Justice Mapping Center’s analysis of 2010 data from the Georgia Department of Corrections and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

6

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

INDIANAPOLIS
In Indianapolis, District 17’s incarceration
and reentry rates are the highest in the
city and 18 times those of District 3,
which has the lowest rates. Although
each area comprises about 5 percent
of the city’s population, District 17 is home
to 12 percent of all residents returning
from prison. By comparison, District 3 is
home to less than 1 percent. District 17’s
child poverty rate far exceeds the city
average and is triple the rate in District 3;
it also has almost three times as many
African-American residents.

District 1

District 2

District 5

District 3
District 4

District 8
District 7

District 10

District 9
District 13

District 6

District 14

District 17

District 11

District 19

District 15

District 12
District 16

1.23–3.39

District 18

District 21

District 22

PRISON RELEASES
PER 1,000 ADULTS

3.73–6.48
District 24
District 20

7.44–12.31

District 25

14.36–22.07

District 23

SOURCE Justice Mapping Center’s analysis of 2010 data from the Indiana Department of Correction and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

PROVIDENCE
Fox Point and neighboring Lower
South Providence each represent about
2 percent of Providence residents. But in
Lower South Providence, the percentage
of people returning from prison is five
times higher, at 5 percent, than Fox
Point’s 1 percent. Lower South Providence
also has the city’s highest child poverty
rate, which is more than triple that of its
neighbor. More than 35 percent of its
residents are African American, compared
with only 1 percent in Fox Point.

Charles

Wanskuck
Elmhurst

Mount
Hope

Mount
Pleasant
Manton

Smith
Hill

Olneyville

Silver Lake

Federal Downtown
Hill

West End

Blackstone

College
Hill

Valley

Hartford

Hope

Wayland

Fox Point

Upper South
Providence
Lower South
Providence

Elmwood
Reservoir

PRISON RELEASES
PER 1,000 ADULTS

0–2.89
4.03–8.96

Washington Park

South Elmwood

10.95–15.84
21.93–33.28

SOURCE Justice Mapping Center’s analysis of 2010 data from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A SHARED SENTENCE

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

7

RECOMMENDATIONS

building a stronger support system for children

Children of incarcerated parents — like all children — need
strong, supportive families and communities. Making smart
investments in them, their families and the places where they
live can help ensure they have solid support systems.

8

One key source for these investments
could be savings from the national Justice
Reinvestment Initiative, which focuses on
creating a more cost-effective approach to
criminal justice, while maintaining public
safety. Several states participating in the
initiative, including Arkansas, Georgia and
Louisiana, have redirected funds to community-based treatment programs, transitional
housing or reentry support.56 As more states
continue to save, they could funnel some
of these funds toward programs and tools
to help promote healthy child development
and strengthen families and communities.
Although such investments are critical,
the most powerful step, by far, is to reduce
our nation’s overreliance on incarceration.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, as
well as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s
decades of work in juvenile justice, clearly
shows that significantly reducing our use of
correctional facilities saves money without
compromising public safety — and focuses
attention on lasting solutions that allow
people to succeed and leave their criminal
past behind them, instead of reliving it.57

Taking this step means reexamining our
nation’s decades-old policies on sentencing,
bail, probation and parole, exploring shorter
sentences and alternatives to jail and prison
for nonviolent crimes, which represent the
majority of offenses among people serving
time.58 It also means curbing the use of
jails to hold people awaiting trial who can’t
afford bail and, consequently, end up losing
jobs, child care or homes — even if they
are absolved of wrongdoing. These fundamental changes to America’s criminal
justice system would dramatically decrease
the number of people — and, therefore,
parents — behind bars, the amount of
time they stay there and the effects of their
absence on their children, families and
neighborhoods. Though some states have
already moved in this direction, it is time
that we as a nation revisit our notion of
criminal justice and eliminate flawed policies and practices that unnecessarily and
unfairly emphasize stringent approaches
to meting out punishment.
Given the criminal justice system’s
overwhelmingly uneven impact on

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

children of color, discussions around
policy and practice changes should
evaluate the potential effect on these
kids and their families — through racial
equity impact assessments, for example —
to avoid further harm.
Even as we continue pushing for comprehensive system reform, the urgent needs
of children and families bearing the burdens associated with incarceration require
us to act today. Within that context, we
offer several recommendations for state
and local policymakers, criminal justice
systems, public agencies and communityand faith-based organizations to put
children’s best interests first when designing programs and policies around parents
who are incarcerated.

The very agencies and organizations
that could help children and their families
typically have no official or clear way
to reach them. They also tend to operate
in isolation, with different funding sources
and guidelines that can further impede
their ability to respond to child and
family needs. The Children of Incarcerated
Parents Bill of Rights offers a strong
set of principles and recommendations
for putting kids at the forefront before,
during and after incarceration. It calls
on police departments, courts, schools,
correctional facilities and other institutions
that touch children’s lives to operate with
them in mind.60

Children need permanent family connections and stability to do well, and their
families need the financial and emotional
wherewithal to support their well-being.
Providing mental health and counseling
programs to family members who step up
as caregivers during incarceration can help
children withstand the repercussions of
this disruption in their lives.
Research shows preserving a child’s
relationship with a parent during incarceration benefits both parties. It also benefits
society, reducing children’s mental health
issues and anxiety, while lowering recidivism and facilitating parents’ successful
return to their communities.59 Few programs exist to support these relationships
during incarceration, and, upon reunification, families are left to travel bumpy
terrain on their own, from readjusting to
life after prison to resuming parental roles.
The minimal data available on children
with incarcerated parents further complicate attempts to address their needs.

––State and federal criminal justice
systems should preserve family
connections during incarceration by
encouraging judges and other key players
to consider the impact on kids and
families when making sentencing and
prison-assignment decisions. These
systems should require courts to
inform local social service agencies and
community-based organizations when
a parent is incarcerated so that they
can make contact with families. Prisons
and jails also should develop visitation
policies that allow children to maintain
their parental relationships, such as
providing transportation and familyfriendly visiting centers in their facilities
or offering other means of communication,
including videoconferencing.
	 Hawaii law, for instance, calls for
the director of public safety to consider
the best interests of families first
when placing parents in correctional
facilities — consistent with public safety
and security — and to ensure their
geographic proximity and ability to
maintain bonds with their children.61
In several New York state prisons, the
Osborne Association’s FamilyWorks
program creates a more child-friendly

A SHARED SENTENCE

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RECOMMENDATION ONE
Ensure children are supported
while parents are incarcerated and
after they return.

9

environment through family centers
in prison visiting rooms, in addition to
offering parenting courses and individual
and family counseling.62

10

––To support appropriate and safe family
reunification, prisons and community
organizations should provide family
counseling and parenting courses while
parents are incarcerated and after they
return. If children enter foster care, child
welfare agencies and courts should prioritize
placements with other family members or
friends who can care for them in the absence
of both parents. The National Fatherhood
Initiative’s InsideOut Dad helps incarcerated
fathers connect with their families and build
parenting skills. Correctional facilities in
about 25 states, including Alabama, Florida,
New Jersey and Virginia, have used this
program, which has documented increases
in fathers’ confidence, parenting know-how
and contact with their kids.63

––Early education centers, schools, child
welfare agencies, community-based health
centers and other local and faith-based
organizations should offer programs that
foster children’s mental and emotional
well-being. They should also provide
mentoring and support groups for kids
and teens whose parents are in prison, as
well as for their families. This includes
establishing administrative policies and
connections between and among prisons
and child welfare, health, education and
employment and training agencies and
programs so that all are aware of families
in need of support.
	 Atlanta’s Foreverfamily, for example,
has after-school and leadership programs
for children and teens with incarcerated
parents, creating space for them to
interact with peers and coordinating
visits to prisons. In New York, the
Center for Community Alternatives
offers mentoring and support groups for
Syracuse public school students whose
parents are incarcerated.

––States should support family caregivers
in meeting children’s needs by facilitating
their access to financial, legal, health,
child care and housing assistance. They
also should offer these family members
counseling and support groups to bolster
their ability to be a steady source of
comfort for kids.64
	 The National Family Caregiver
Support Program allows states to direct
some of their funding toward providing

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

grandparents and other relatives ages 55
and older with services, counseling and
additional tools. Washington has a strong
state network of kinship navigators to
connect families with legal resources,
health care for kids and parenting classes,
and Tennessee’s Relative Caregiver
Program works with community-based
organizations to provide services for
children, teens and caregivers.65

RECOMMENDATION TWO
Connect parents who have returned
to the community with pathways
to employment.

Upon release, parents face daunting tasks
in trying to find work and rebuild their
family and neighborhood networks.
Obstacles to employment and restricted
access to public programs such as food
assistance hinder them from regaining
their financial footing and supporting
their children. Many parents leave prison
with significant debts such as court fees —
including bail and fines accrued before
sentencing — as well as accumulated child
support, with little means to pay them.66
Automatic paycheck deductions for these
debts can discourage parents from seeking
legitimate avenues of work. Being unable
to meet these obligations can unleash a
vicious cycle: Not making required payments can lead to revoked parole and a
return to prison, where parents are still
unable to make payments.
Without education, training and
work experience, parents who have been
incarcerated can’t compete for today’s
family-supporting jobs. They may also be
dealing with traumas related to imprisonment that make it challenging to hold a
job. While many prisons offer vocational
training, it often falls short of teaching
the skills that today’s employers seek.
Providing sector-specific education
and training — starting in prison — for
jobs in high-demand industries such as

A SHARED SENTENCE

information technology can help parents
develop the skills necessary to resume
their role as providers, while reducing
their likelihood of returning to prison.67
Research indicates that participating
in prison education and training
programs lowers the chances of reincarceration and increases the likelihood
of securing employment.68 In addition,
every dollar spent on such programs cuts
incarceration costs by four or five times
that amount.69 Beyond saving money,
removing barriers to work could boost
the economy, with increased income and
sales tax contributions from gainfully
employed parents.70 Even when families
do not reunite, it is important to equip
parents to be effective providers and
community members.

	 Without education,
training and work
experience, parents who
have been incarcerated
can’t compete for today’s
family-supporting jobs.

––States should take advantage of newly
raised thresholds for funding prison
education programs under the federal
Workforce Innovation and Opportunity
Act and direct more funds toward
education and training for incarcerated
individuals, preparing them for work in
high-demand sectors. To meet the needs
of today’s job market, public and private
employment and training programs
should move beyond placing individuals
with records in a handful of industries,
such as construction or manufacturing, in
which a criminal history isn’t an automatic
strike. Instead, they should identify a
broader range of jobs and fields to target
and help interested adults develop the
skills necessary to start their own business.
	 For example, a training program in
California’s San Quentin State Prison
teaches computer coding to open
doors to jobs in technology. And a
landscaping and horticultural program
in Philadelphia prisons that provides
job-placement assistance has reduced
recidivism among participants to less
than half of the city’s rate.71

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

11

	 The high-poverty
neighborhoods that are
home to many kids and
families dealing with
incarceration lack quality
affordable housing, access
to jobs, good schools
and key resources.

12

––States should minimize the effects of a
criminal record through ban-the-box policies
that require public and private employers
to postpone criminal history questions
until they have chosen an applicant as
one of the most qualified job candidates.
Nearly 20 states — including Connecticut,
Georgia and Minnesota — and more
than 100 cities and counties, along with a
number of businesses, have adopted banthe-box policies. Several jurisdictions have
documented a resulting increase in hiring
individuals with records.72 States also should
use subsidized employment programs, which
cover part of participants’ wages for a trial
period to help them prepare for permanent
employment. Such programs incentivize
employers in sectors that do not usually
consider applicants who have a record.73
––States should enable families to access
public programs such as the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program and
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
so they can cover basic needs as formerly
incarcerated parents work to earn income
and achieve self-sufficiency. Although
federal law prohibits people convicted of
felony drug offenses from accessing both
programs, states can choose to opt out
or limit the ban. Many have done so, but
several still have not.74

RECOMMENDATION THREE
Strengthen communities, particularly
those disproportionately affected by
incarceration and reentry, to promote
family stability and opportunity.

The communities where children reside
can make or break a family’s stability.
Increasing communities’ access to opportunity and strengthening community-based
organizations and programs can help entire
neighborhoods — and, therefore, the
families living in them — minimize the
economic and social effects of incarceration.
The high-poverty neighborhoods that are
home to many kids and families dealing
with incarceration lack quality affordable
housing, access to jobs, good schools and
key resources. Together, these factors can
impede children’s academic success and
increase their likelihood of dropping out of
school. Growing up in such neighborhoods
also lowers kids’ chances of climbing the
economic ladder as adults.76
Stronger, safer and healthier neighborhoods can reduce not only the likelihood
of crime but encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

––States should suspend child support orders
while parents are in prison so they don’t
accumulate crippling debt that they must
start paying upon release. The District of
Columbia and several dozen states, including
Arizona and Michigan, allow incarcerated
fathers to have their payments reduced or
halted during their time in prison. California
goes further, suspending child support orders
if a parent is incarcerated for more than three
months and unable to make payments.75
Every state should offer to suspend such
payments and proactively make parents
aware of this option.

––Being able to obtain safe and stable
homes bolsters child well-being and
reduces recidivism.77 State and local
governments should provide incentives for
housing authorities and private landlords
to lift restrictions on people with records
so that families can remain in or access
safe, affordable housing. They also should
offer training for property managers
and caseworkers to ensure they properly
interpret housing policies to enable
formerly incarcerated parents to live with
their families, as appropriate.
	 In Oregon, private landlords cannot
discriminate based on a person’s arrest
record or certain types of convictions.
Landlords in Newark, New Jersey, must
weigh factors such as references for good
conduct and the nature of a person’s

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

kids count policy report

criminal history in determining whether
he or she can rent a home.78 And a pilot
program with the Housing Authority of
the City of Los Angeles uses Section 8
vouchers to support family reunification.79
––To create additional pathways to jobs
and careers, city governments and private
employers should, when possible, take
advantage of universities, hospitals and
other anchor institutions80 that are rooted
in communities and promote economic
inclusion strategies. The latter intentionally
connect low-income residents and
neighborhoods with job and contracting
opportunities generated from economic
development projects. Economic inclusion
and anchor institution policies and programs
should include the hiring of formerly
incarcerated individuals, along with related
training to ensure returning parents can
access local jobs. These institutions also
could support local businesses owned by
individuals who were incarcerated.
	 For example, Cleveland’s Evergreen
Cooperative Initiative — a partnership of
the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland
Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western
Reserve University and city government —
promotes the development of local,

A SHARED SENTENCE

employee-owned businesses that train
and hire low-income residents who
are struggling to obtain employment,
including people who were incarcerated.

CONCLUSION
Without a doubt, people who break the
law should face the consequences. Still,
parents who are incarcerated do not live
in isolation: They are fathers, mothers,
partners, caregivers, breadwinners and
community members, and their kids
inevitably end up sharing their sentences.
Built into the very essence of the
American Dream is the belief that children
can, and should, have the opportunity
to forge their own path, to reach far and
stretch wide, regardless of where they grow
up or who their parents are. The confinement of a parent should not doom a child
to a lifetime of closed doors. Our hopes
and dreams for children of incarcerated
parents should be no different from the
limitless horizon we seek for all of our
children. They too deserve a blank page
in our nation’s great storybook — and the
chance to shape their part of the tale as
it continues to unfold for themselves, their
future families and our whole country.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

13

ENDNOTES

1. Geller, A., Cooper, C. E.,
Garfinkel, I., Schwartz-Soicher, O.,
& Mincy, R. B. (2012, February).
Beyond absenteeism: Father
incarceration and child development. Demography, 49(1), 49–76.
Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.
gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703506
2. This is well documented in a
variety of studies. See, for example,
Hairston, C. F. (2007, October).
Focus on children with incarcerated parents: An overview of the
research literature. Baltimore, MD:
The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Retrieved from www.aecf.org/m/
resourcedoc/aecf-FocusonChildren
with_ncarceratedParentsOverview
ofLiterature-2007.pdf. And,
Wildeman, C., & Western, B.
(2010). Incarceration in fragile
families. The Future of Children,
20(2), 157–177. Retrieved from
www.futureofchildren.org/
futureofchildren/publications/
docs/20_02_08.pdf. And, Geller,
A., Garfinkel, I., Cooper, C. E., &
Mincy, R. B. (2009, December 1).
Parental incarceration and child
wellbeing: Implications for urban
families. Social Science Quarterly,
90(5), 1186–1202. Retrieved from
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/
PMC2835345. And, Lee, R. D.,
Fang, X., & Luo, F. (2013, April).
The impact of parental incarceration
on the physical and mental health
of young adults. Pediatrics, 131(4),
1188–1195. Retrieved from www.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23509174
3. Clear, T. R. (2008). The effects of
high imprisonment rates on communities. Crime and Justice, 37(1),
97–132. Retrieved from http://
myweb.fsu.edu/bstults/ccj5625/
readings/clear-cj-2008.pdf
4. Wildeman, C., & Western, B.
(2010). And, The Sentencing Project.
(2015, November). Fact sheet: Trends
in U.S. corrections. Washington, DC:
Author. Retrieved from www.
sentencingproject.org/doc/
publications/inc_Trends_in_
Corrections_Fact_sheet.pdf

14

5. Western, B., & Wildeman, C.
(2009, January). The black family
and mass incarceration. The
ANNALS of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science, 621(1),
221–242. Retrieved from http://
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western/files/westernwildeman09.
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6. Murphey, D., & Cooper, P.
M. (2015, October). Parents
behind bars: What happens to their
children? Washington, DC: Child
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BehindBars.pdf. And, Child Trends’
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7. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
(n.d.). FAQ detail: What is the
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9. Gelb, A. (2015, July 30). State
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February). Incarcerated parents and
their children: Trends 1991–2007.
Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved
from www.sentencingproject.org/
doc/publications/publications/
inc_incarceratedparents.pdf

The Annie E. Casey Foundation | www.aecf.org

12. DeFina, R. H., & Hannon, L.
(2009, February 23). The impact of
mass incarceration on poverty. Crime
& Delinquency. Retrieved from
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13. Child Trends’ analysis of
the 2011–12 National Survey of
Children’s Health for the Annie E.
Casey Foundation. This estimate
only includes children whose
incarcerated parent lived with them
at some point. In this report, we rely
on a variety of data sources to tell
the story of children of incarcerated
parents, their families and their
communities. Because sources may
have different data-collection methods, national estimates may vary
by data source. See, for example,
Murphey, D., & Cooper, P. M.
(2015, October). And, Wildeman, C.,
& Western, B. (2010).
14. Glaze, L. E., & Maruschak,
L. M. (2008, August). Parents in
prison and their minor children.
Washington, DC: U.S. Department
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(2015, October). And, SchwartzSoicher, O., Geller, A., & Garfinkel,
I. (2011, September). The effect of
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E. Casey Foundation. Although
national data for American Indian
children are unavailable, the statistics on incarceration among men
and women suggest that they, too,
are more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their white peers.
American Indian men are four times
more likely to be incarcerated than
their white counterparts; American
Indian women are six times more
likely to be incarcerated. For more
information, see Lakota People’s
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Native lives matter. Santa Cruz, CA:
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Lives%20Matter%20PDF.pdf

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view/full_report
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22. Ella Baker Center for Human
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15

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16

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69. Davis, L. M., Bozick, R.,
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achieving-the-anchor-promise

kids count policy report

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The Foundation thanks the many
staff members who contributed
to this KIDS COUNT policy report,
as well as Child Trends and the
Justice Mapping Center for providing
data analysis for this publication.
Permission to copy, disseminate or otherwise
use information from this report is granted.
To learn more, visit www.aecf.org/copyright.
Designed by KINETIK
www.kinetikcom.com
Photography © Jason Miczek,
Cynthia Sambro-Rier, Rebecca Drobis,
Imagesbybarbara, Edward Lara and YazolinoGirl
Printed and bound in the United States of America
on recycled paper using soy-based inks.
KIDS COUNT ® is a registered trademark
of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
© 2016 The Annie E. Casey Foundation

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