Children and families as the "hidden victims" of the legal system

Incarceration’s Impact on Children and Families

June 2022

Children and families as the "hidden victims" of the legal system
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Generational Harm

The impact of involvement with the criminal legal system extends far beyond the individual: arrest and incarceration have disastrous ripple effects on people’s children and loved ones, who represent the system’s “hidden victims”. Mass incarceration has exposed a staggering number of children to the consequences of having a parent behind bars: 50-75% of incarcerated people report having a minor child. For incarcerated women, the rate is higher: 58% of women in U.S. prisons and 80% of women in jails are mothers. Since the War on Drugs, the rate of children with incarcerated mothers has increased by 100%, and the rate of those with incarcerated fathers has increased by more than 75%. 

Having a family member incarcerated is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)., The impact of ACEs over the course of a child’s life contribute to poor mental health and behavioral issues (alcoholism, depression, anxiety, suicide), and poor physical health in adulthood (heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease). Parental incarceration often intersects with other barriers to success, such as poverty or housing instability: in fact, children who experience parental incarceration have 3x as many ACEs as those who do not. Parental incarceration can be as traumatic for children as parental death or divorce, and is directly associated with poorer health outcomes, lower educational attainment, poverty and a loss of economic mobility, residential instability, and increased risk of future criminal legal system involvement.

Research demonstrates that supporting strong relationships between a child and their incarcerated parent can mitigate the negative consequences for the child and improve outcomes for the incarcerated parent (for example, family visits appear to lower recidivism rates,). However, the system makes it nearly impossible for incarcerated people to sustain healthy, positive relationships with their loved ones. Instead, it tears families apart and creates permanent damage that persists for generations. Decarceration and minimizing the time parents spend behind bars is critical to protecting the lives and futures of children.

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