When a parent is sentenced to a term in jail or prison, whether it’s a long or short stay, their child also has to pay the price for their crime. For some children, their parents have been incarcerated since they were young infants, and they have never known a life with their parent playing an active role in their lives. For others, they watched their parents be accused and convicted of a crime, then said their goodbyes as they went to begin their prison sentence. These children often feel confused and scared as they begin their new lives without parental guidance and love. While some fortunate children are able to live with supportive relatives, far too many others find themselves bouncing between foster homes or homeless on the streets.
It is hard for experts to collect accurate data about the exact number of children in the United States whose parents are incarcerated. According to the National Institute of Justice Journal, some reports suggest that approximately 1.7 to 2.7 million children in the country experience parental incarceration at least once in their lifetime. Additional data indicates that about 50 to 75 percent of all incarcerated adults have a child under the age of 18.
There is a direct correlation between the increase in the number of children with incarcerated parents and the ever-rising number of individuals who are incarcerated each year. The number has escalated steadily since the 1970s, when incarceration rates climbed quickly and never slowed down.
According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the majority of incarcerated parents are fathers, but the number of incarcerated mothers climbed higher during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The report issued by ASPE also found that the majority of children with incarcerated parents were under the age of 10.
Children who have parents who are incarcerated are often considered the invisible victims of the criminal justice system. These children are unable to interact with their parents on a regular basis, which therefore prevents adequate bonding. In addition, the fact that their parent is incarcerated often means that they do not have a stable home life, as one parent is unable to provide.
Studies have found that there are both short-term and long-term impacts of parental incarceration. In the short-term, many children whose parents are in jail deal with undiagnosed anxiety and depression, which can result in behavior issues. Research has found that antisocial behavior is most common among children whose parents are incarcerated. In the long-term, these same children are at increased risk for clinical depression and other mental health disorders, as well as an increased risk for continued behavior problems.
Obviously, there are a lot of individual factors that will impact the experience of each child whose parent is incarcerated. Economic status, educational opportunities and personal health conditions will also influence their overall way and quality of life. However, studies continue to show that there is a negative impact of parental incarceration on children of all ages.