IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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US: Children on the Outside

12th January 2011

This report uncovers the devastating impact of parental incarceration on youth and the broader community and points to approaches to reduce prison populations and assist children. The report provides first-hand accounts of the harm experienced by some of the 1.7 million minor children with a parent in prison, a population that has grown with the explosion of the U.S. prison population.

The report details the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents whose experience of grief and loss is compounded by economic insecurity, family instability, a compromised sense of self-worth, attachment and trust problems, and social stigmatization when their parents are incarcerated.  The report outlines the ways in which parental incarceration can influence negative outcomes for youth, including mental health problems, possible school failure and unemployment, and antisocial and delinquent behavior.  

As with the punitive consequences of our mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration policies, the impact of parental incarceration falls disproportionately on children of color.  African American children are seven times and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children.  The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.

Children on the Outside urges a shift from failed "tough on crime" policies toward a public health and safety strategy that includes evidence-based treatment options and reducing reliance on incarceration.  The report provides concrete steps to moderate the negative impact of parental incarceration on children and points to existing and promising approaches for cost-effective criminal justice policies that promote community health and safety.  To illustrate this point the report compares New York, which has downsized prisons through drug reform, saved money, and seen larger decreases in crime with Alabama, a state with higher incarceration rates. 

Read more:

  • See the full report here
  • See the executive summary here