How American Prisons Punish Innocent Children

The United States incarcerates about 1.5 million men and women in state and federal prisons today.  The number of men imprisoned is about 1,395,000; and the number of women is about 112,000.  They were convicted of one or more felony crimes and according to sentencing guidelines or a judge’s determination they deserve a prison sentence.  (Those numbers do not include the 740,000 persons held in city and county jails awaiting trial for a felony crime or serving sentences for a misdemeanor conviction.)

Fewer than half of those incarcerated are for violent offenses.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many are in prison for non-violent and drug-related crimes.  A disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities (Blacks and Hispanics) are sentenced to prison compared to White offenders.  Advocates of sentencing reform argue that America’s sentencing policies are excessively harsh and that prison sentences have not reduced crime or increased public safety.

The point of this blog post however is not to question America’s sentencing policies but to bring our attention to the innocent persons affected by incarceration.  They are the children of incarcerated parents.


A Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that about 809,000 men and women prisoners were parents of minor children under the age of 18. The nation’s prisons held about 744,000 fathers having 1.6 million children; and mothers with more than 147,000 children.  More than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated, accounting for 2.3 percent of the American population under 18 years of age. (There are about 74 million U.S. residents under the age of 18.)

  • A majority of prisoners have a minor child, a quarter of which were age 4 or younger and half were age 9 or younger.
  • More than a third of minor children will reach age 18 while their parent is incarcerated.
  • Fewer than half of parents in state prison lived with their minor children either in the month before arrest or just prior to incarceration.
  • Fathers most commonly reported the child’s mother as current caregiver of their children, while mothers most commonly reported the child’s grandparents.
  • Caregivers for children with incarcerated parents include: the other parent, grandparent, other relatives, foster home or agency, friends, or others.

America’s sentencing policies that are part of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” beginning in the 1980s have resulted in mass incarceration that ranks the U.S. #1 in the world for the rate of incarceration of its citizens.

Beyond the arguments whether tougher sentencing has reduced crime or brought greater public safety, the use of imprisonment on more convicted offenders has greatly affected communities and innocent persons.


In his book Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged  Neighborhoods Worse, nationally-known criminologist Todd Clear documented the impact of incarceration on families and communities.  Prison sentences negative affect family functioning and result in broken families.  Children with an incarcerated parent have less parental supervision, are at greater risk of parental abuse, and face an increased risk of having their own problems with the justice system.  A child who is exposed to a parent or sibling who went to prison has an increased rather than a decreased risk of incarceration.  Contrary to acting as a deterrent, prison may actually increase rather than decrease crime.

                  Half of parents in state prison reported that they also have had a family                                                         member who had been incarcerated.

                                 Incarceration has many unintended consequences.                                               Children of incarcerated parents are the “collateral consequences” of                                        America’s “tough on crime” policy of mass incarceration.

What can be done to reduce the adverse effects of imprisonment on children?  There are many effective alternatives to incarceration—but that is a long-term solution.  There are programs today that help children of incarcerated parents deal with their loss.

“Stay tuned” for my next blog post when we will see what is being done for children of incarcerated parents—especially during the Christmas holiday season.


Bureau of Justice Statistics on Prison Populations

Prison Inmates with Children Under 18 years of age


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