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March 2013Vol. 14, No. 2Children on the Outside

By 2007, 53 percent of the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons were the parents of one or more minor children, meaning that more than 1.7 million minor children had an incarcerated parent. The impact of parental incarceration has been equated to the pain and trauma of losing a parent to death or divorce. A new white paper by Justice Strategies presents the findings of focus groups with children of incarcerated parents, which shows the impact of parental loss on the children's sense of safety and stability, economic security, and sense of connectedness.

The study included eight 2-hour focus groups with 8 to 12 participants, in addition to 18 structured interviews with children of incarcerated parents, parents currently behind bars, caregivers, and caseworkers and counselors who assist reentering parents. Children expressed their loss of attachments and ability to trust, a lack of a sense of place in the world, and other indicators including the undermined sense of economic security and safety. 

Part one of the report presents the findings from the focus groups and interviews. Part two of the report offers the authors' recommendations for policymakers and other public stakeholders on reducing the number of parents sentenced to prison in the first place and reducing the pain experienced by children of incarcerated parents. The authors point to the costs and benefits of drug treatment support in lieu of incarceration, noting that imprisonment for crimes driven by substance abuse disorders is often less effective than alternatives. The authors also offer a comparison of incarceration policies in Alabama and New York, the latter of which the authors consider a drug-reform State. 

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration, by Patricia Allard and Judith Greene, is available on the Justice Strategies website: (1 MB)