NCFR Family Policy Report: How Parental Incarceration Harms Children

A new family policy report from the National Council on Family Relations, written by sociologists Sarah Wakefield and Chris Wildeman, focuses on children with incarcerated parents. It includes excellent suggestions for what can be done to help.

1. Account for children from the point of arrest: Consider families in criminal justice decision making. At the point of arrest, police officers require training to address children’s safety and well-being.
2. Explore alternatives to incarceration for primary caregivers: Allow family responsibility exceptions. Employment often justifies weekend jail sentences, and family connections can be leveraged in much the same way. Prisoners who maintain family contact are less likely to return to the system and have lower rates of misconduct.
3. Prioritize family connections while incarcerated: Prioritize proximity to the family when selecting secure facilities if alternatives to incarceration are not possible. Inmates connected to their family are less anxious, less traumatized, and less likely to offend again, thus easing costs for their families.
4. Pay attention to what takes the place of incarceration: Assist families and children in addressing the underlying substance abuse and mental health problems that often lead to incarceration. In turn, these programs can improve family and child well-being.
5. Criminal justice reform must address violence: Refrain from limiting criminal justice reform to certain categories of inmates. Prisoners are as varied as families, and reform efforts directed at one category may not reach many other children.
6. Criminal justice reform should be local: Develop local policies to generate a greater impact and address the variability across inmates and their families. An overemphasis on the federal system makes little sense given the small size and idiosyncrasies of that population. Reform that targets fewer than 200,000 prisoners is less consequential, considering the more than 1.3 million prisoners in state facilities or the more than 8 million people who pass through local jails each year.
7. Move from parent-focused to child-driven interventions: Create child-centered policies that address household instability, material disadvantage, mental health and well-being challenges, and educational deficits that flow from parental incarceration.

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