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Parents Locked Up, Kids Left Out: Who Really Suffers?

This article is part 6 of 8 in the column Children of the State

The American criminal justice system has created a culture of mass incarceration.

As of 2015, the U.S. incarceration rate (698 per 100,000 people) was the second highest in the world, topped only by that of Seychelles (799 per 100,000), an East African island nation (click here).

For black and Latino males, the likelihood of incarceration is significantly higher. Due to their circumstances before imprisonment and its aftereffects, these individuals are also less likely to own property or a car or have access to the means of economic stability. This tends to trap them in poverty, which breeds more crime and inhibits social mobility.

Unfortunately, it’s not just those who are imprisoned who are hurt by incarceration. More than half of America’s prisoners had underage children at the time of imprisonment, and 45 percent were living with their children before their arrest (click here).

When a parent is imprisoned, the children experience a great deal of emotional stress. Not only does their relationship to the parent becoming severely strained, the trauma impacts many psychosocial aspects of the their lives. Children are more likely to exhibit behavioral problems, struggle with depression, or engage in juvenile delinquency than peers without incarcerated parents (click here).  And the psychological impacts can have lifelong consequences.

More tangibly, the socioeconomic effects of a parent going to jail can ruin a family. A recent study, the Who Pays? report , researched these impacts and summarized their findings as follows:


  • The average debt incurred for court-related fines and feeds totaled $13,607.
  • In 63 percent of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs. Of those relatives,83 percent were women.
  • Two in three families have a hard time meeting basic needs as a result of a loved one’s conviction and incarceration, and 70 percent of those families include children.
  • Fully 67 percent of ex-offenders were unemployed or underemployed five years after release.
  • One in four ex-offenders were denied school loans because of a prior conviction.
  • Four in five (79 percent) of participants were denied or declared ineligible for housing because of their or a loved one’s conviction history (click here).


Our society tends to view crime and incarceration myopically, focusing only on punishing the offender. Far too little thought is given to reformation or reentry, as if the American people have disowned the person for committing a crime. Even less attention is paid to the devastating societal impacts of incarceration. As it stands now, our system financially penalizes a family simply for their association with someone who is charged with a crime.

The impact of this on children is devastating. Poverty alone has a lasting impact on their long-term outcomes and quality of life. Couple that with increased socioeconomic burdens and instabilities, as well as the psychosocial trauma of an incarcerated parent, and these children face enormous obstacles.

In an attempt to provide the best possible future for all children in America, we must reformat our criminal justice system. Breaking down the pattern of mass incarceration is a huge undertaking but one of the utmost importance. By focusing on particular aspects of the system and implementing manageable policy changes, we can mitigate the burden placed on families of those incarcerated. A few of these policy changes will be examined in upcoming articles.

Emily Rose DeMarco

edemarcoEmily Rose DeMarco is a Masters of Public Administration candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. She is also a registered nurse currently working in emergency medicine.




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