Parents in Prison: Why keeping low-level drug offenders in prison hurts kids, and what the Justice Department is doing to help

BlogFamiliesAug 22 2013

The corrections community is abuzz following word of Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement last week of a new Justice Department policy that seeks to avert harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Holder’s reform effort has garnered immediate support from notable political figures on both sides of the aisle, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Corrections Association. Support has focused on the reform’s potential to mitigate prison overcrowding and redirect corrections spending to social programs. With roughly 1.6 million individuals in state and federal correctional facilities—more than 330,000 of whom were incarcerated for drug offenses in 2011<sup[1]—there is certainly reason to be optimistic.

The American Counseling Association, Department of Education, and Children’s Defense Fund should be equally enthusiastic about the federal reforms, given the implications for children and families. About 1.5 million minor children have a parent (mostly fathers) incarcerated in state or federal prison in the United States.[2] The variation along racial and ethnic lines is striking. One in every 15 African American children has a parent in prison, compared with 1 in every 42 Hispanic children and 1 in every 111 white children. But all of these children are more likely than their peers to exhibit academic difficulties, emotional problems, and antisocial behavior.[3]  In fact, it seems that incarceration, by itself, places children and families at increased risk—above and beyond the influence of parental mental health, educational, and employment issues–for a number of negative outcomes including family instability, poverty, and aggressive behavior. Examination of national data on children of unmarried couples in urban settings has revealed that, compared with other similarly-vulnerable children, those who have experienced parental incarceration are 40 percent more likely to have an unemployed father; 32 percent more likely to have parents living separately; 25 percent more likely to experience material hardship; and 44 percent more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior.[4]

This should come as no surprise. Parents—even those in disadvantaged circumstances– provide supports that are critical to children’s healthy development. Financial, instrumental, and emotional support ensures that children are fed, informed, and encouraged. Parents also provide supervision and discipline for children, which helps keep them safe and out of trouble. Roughly 47 percent of fathers incarcerated in state and federal prisons report having lived with their children before being imprisoned and 46 percent report providing primary financial support for their children prior to incarceration. Keeping them locked away can be detrimental to families and their communities.

Attorney General Holder’s reform efforts hold promise for keeping fathers at home and close to home for these especially vulnerable children. Several states have already begun instituting similar policies that direct funding away from prison construction and operations to bolster social programs aimed at rehabilitation and support. California alone decreased admissions on drug offenses by more than 7,000 inmates between 2010 and 2011.1   Similarly, states as diverse as Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, North Carolina, and Hawaii have decreased prison populations, with specific emphasis on drug offenders. In total, states reportedly reduced admissions for drug offenses more than 5 percent, or 12,000 inmates, between 2010 and 2011.[5] In federal prisons, admissions for drug offenses were down 4.7 percent between 2010 and 2011, but still, 48 percent of inmates are serving sentences on drug charges.

Just think about the implications as federal prosecutors and additional states adopt these “smart on crime” reforms. The most recent numbers indicate that about 321,000 inmates are serving prison sentences of more than 1 year for drug offenses. Recognizing that most of these inmates are men and more than half of them are fathers, a 10 percent decrease in state and federal inmates incarcerated for drug offenses would represent roughly 15,000 additional fathers available to support their children in [mostly disadvantaged] communities around the country, not to mention the added benefits of addressing the mental health, substance use, and self-sufficiency needs of fathers who receive true rehabilitative and support services rather than lengthy prison sentences.

Corrections reform is seldom discussed in terms of its potential to impact children and families directly; however, the policy recently announced by Attorney General Holder should be celebrated as a major victory for those interested in the well-being of young people and families. Parents play critical roles in children’s development even when their own life circumstances are not ideal. Investments in parents who make mistakes but pose no threat to public safety can have direct benefits to the parents and profound indirect effects on their children. It is important for researchers and decision makers to examine these investments closely for the effects they have on children and families.

[1] Carson, E.A. & W.J. Sabol (2012). Prisoners in 2011, Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, retrieved August 15, 2013 from

[2] Glaze, L.E. & L.M. Maruschak (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report., retrieved August 15, 2013 from

[3] Murray, J., D.P. Farrington, & I. Sekol (2012), Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational experience after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 138(2): p. 175-210.

[4] Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (2008). Parental incarceration and child wellbeing in fragile families, Fragile Families Research Brief Number 42, retrieved August 17, 2013 from

[5] Carson, E.A. & D. Golinelli (2013). Prisoners in 2012 – Advance Counts, Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, retrieved August 19, 2013 from