• March/April 2001
  • Vol. 2, No. 2

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Bureau of Justice Statistics Report Reveals Increase in Incarcerated Parents

A recent study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that 2% of American children under age 18 have an incarcerated parent, which represents an increase of a third since 1991.

The study breaks these numbers down by race/ethnicity, showing that 7% of black children and 2.6% of Hispanic children have a parent serving time, compared to less than 1% of white children with locked up parents.

Most of these incarcerated parents are fathers, but in 1999, approximately 53,000 incarcerated parents were mothers, representing a 98% increase--almost double the number in 1991. The majority of prisoners with minor children were convicted of drug charges rather than violent offenses. Most were repeat offenders and more than half had been previously incarcerated.

The care arranged for children differed markedly by gender of the parent inmate. Mothers in State prison were more likely to leave their children in the care of their children's grandparents or other relatives (79%), while most inmate fathers in State prison (90%) entrusted the care of at least one of their minor children with their mother. Although a majority of parents in both State and Federal prison reported having some contact with their children (telephone, mail, in person), about half of all parents serving time reported never having had a personal visit with their children since their admission.

Other highlights of the study include:

  • In 1999, an estimated 721,500 State and Federal prisoners were parents to 1,498,800 children under age 18 or an estimated 336,300 U.S. households were affected by the imprisonment of a resident parent.
  • 22% of all minor children with a parent in prison were under 5 years old.
  • Prior to admission, less than half of the parents in State prison reported living with their children--44% of fathers, 64% of mothers.
  • 10% of mothers and 2% of fathers in State prison reported a child now living in a foster home or agency.

The study was based on personal interviews in State and Federal correctional facilities. Inmates described aspects of their lives both before and during incarceration, including history of mental illness, substance abuse, education, employment, income, homelessness, and marital status. Tables present data on current offenses, criminal histories, and sentence lengths, among other information.

Download a copy of the special report, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children and accompanying tables at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/iptc.htm.

It is also available from:

  • BJS fax-on-demand system by dialing 301-519-5550, listening to the complete menu and selecting document number.
  • BJS Clearinghouse at 1-800-732-3277 or fax 410-492-4358.

Related Items

Read about a new program aimed at reunifying Wisconsin foster children with their incarcerated mothers through regular prison visits at: http://www.jsonline.com/news/ state/oct00/mama30102900a.asp.

See "Working With Children and Families Separated by Incarceration: A Handbook for Child Welfare Agencies" in the November 2000 Children's Bureau Express for a summary of the Child Welfare League of America's report, which provides an overview of child welfare services needed by children when their parents are arrested and incarcerated.

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