Criminal Justice Policies Affecting Children

Recent estimates indicate that more than 5 million children, or 7% of all U.S. children, have experienced a coresident parent leaving to spend time in jail or prison, equivalent to 1 in 14 U.S. children (Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Murphey and Cooper acknowledge that “more than 5 million” is an underestimate because it does not include children whose nonresident parents are incarcerated, although nonresident parents often provide financial support and have some contact with their children prior to parental incarceration (Glaze & Marushak, 2008).

Most individuals in state (52%) and federal (63%) prison report having at least one minor child (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), although similar statistics are not available for individuals in jail or under community supervision. At yearend 2014, 6.85child-hugging-stateprisoner million adults were under correctional supervision in the U.S., including 2,224,400 people incarcerated in prison or jail, 3,864,100 on probation, and 856,900 on parole (Kaeble, Glaze, Tsoutis, and Minton, 2015). In 1980, there were only 1.84 million adults under correctional supervision, with 503,600 incarcerated, 1,118,100 on probation, and 220,400 on parole. Compared to 1980, there were 4.4 times the number of incarcerated individuals in 2014 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Key Statistics, Total Adult Correctional Population, 1980-2014, at, visited 11/16/2016). However, these point-in-time estimates mask the mass incarceration that occurs at the local jail level; indeed, there were 11.4 million admissions to local jails in 2014 (Minton & Zeng, 2015). Jails house individuals detained following arrest, as well as prior to charging and sentencing, and those incarcerated for a year or less (typically for misdemeanor crimes), whereas prisons house individuals sentenced to a term of a year or more (typically for felonies), though this may vary by state (Kaeble et al., 2015). 

Despite the differential increases, incarcerated fathers vastly outnumber incarcerated mothers. For example, 92% of parents in state or federal prison were men in 2007 (Maruschak, Glaze, & Mumola, 2010). According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data on imprisoned parents (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Mumola, 2000), when fathers are incarcerated, mothers care for children in 88% of the cases. However, when mothers are incarcerated, it is usually extended family members who care for children, with fathers serving as children’s caregivers ocache_1309266nly about 28%-31% of the time (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Mumola, 2000). Grandparents assume the caregiving role for 53% of  children with imprisoned mothers (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Similar statistics are not available for parents incarcerated in jails.

Children of color are disproportionately affected by parental incarceration. Black children are 7.5 times more likely than White children to have a parent imprisoned (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), and 1 in 4 Black children born in 1990 is likely to experience this phenomenon compared to 1 in 30 White children (Wildeman, 2009). In fact, in 1990, 50% of Black children with fathers who did not complete high school experienced paternal imprisonment, compared to 7% of White children with fathers who did not complete high school (Wildeman, 2009). Although not as large, the disparity in parental imprisonment between Hispanic children and White children is also alarming. Hispanic children are 2.5 times more likely to experience parental imprisonment (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), and as of 2007, Hispanics were the largest (40%) ethnic group in federal prisons compared to White (27%) and Black (23%) federal prisoners (Lopez & Light, 2009). These numbers do not include the thousands of adults incarcerated due to illegal immigration and placed in detention facilities.

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