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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes

From the Economic Policy Institute

By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein
December 15, 2016

"Criminal justice policy is education policy."

Executive Summary

As many as one in ten African American students has an incarcerated parent. One in four has a parent who is or has been incarcerated. The discriminatory incarceration of African American parents is an important cause of their children’s lowered performance, especially in schools where the trauma of parental incarceration is concentrated.

In this report, we review studies from many disciplines showing that parental incarceration leads to an array of cognitive and noncognitive outcomes known to affect children’s performance in school, and we conclude that our criminal justice system makes an important contribution to the racial achievement gap.

Educators have paid too little heed to this criminal justice crisis. Criminal justice reform should be a policy priority for educators who are committed to improving the achievement of African American children. While reform of federal policy may seem implausible in a Trump administration, educators can seize opportunities for such advocacy at state and local levels because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons.

In 2014, over 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for nonviolent crimes. Over 600,000 of these were in state, not federal, prisons.

Research in criminal justice, health, sociology, epidemiology and economics demonstrates that when parents are incarcerated, children do worse across cognitive and non-cognitive outcome measures.

Key findings include:

  • An African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent. A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs.

Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to:
  • drop out of school;
  • develop learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD);
  • misbehave in school;
  • suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and homelessness.

Each of these conditions presents a challenge to student performance.

To improve their students’ outcomes, educators should join forces with criminal justice reformers to:

  • eliminate disparities between minimum sentences for possession of crack vs. powder cocaine;
  • repeal mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes;
  • encourage President Obama to increase the pace of pardons and commutations in the final days of his term;
  • increase funding for social, educational, and employment programs for released offenders.

Download the full report HERE (PDF; 24 pages).

Outcomes for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Children of incarcerated parents suffer serious harm. It is tempting to think that these consequences are attributes of disadvantaged children, independent of parental incarceration. But careful studies of the effects on children have accounted for these attributes. Children of the incarcerated have worse cognitive and noncognitive outcomes than children with similar socioeconomic and demographic characteristics whose parents have not experienced incarceration.

Association of Parental Incarceration with Children’s Cognitive Outcomes

Children with incarcerated parents are 33 percent more likely to have speech or language problems—like stuttering or stammering—than otherwise similar children whose fathers have not been incarcerated. The grade point averages of children with incarcerated parents decline.

It is more common for children of incarcerated parents to drop out of school than it is for children of non-incarcerated parents, controlling for race, IQ, home quality, poverty status, and mother’s education.

This is especially true for adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 14 with a mother behind bars. Such boys are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, and they are 55 percent more likely to drop out of school because they themselves have been incarcerated.

Children of incarcerated fathers complete fewer years of school than children of nonincarcerated fathers, controlling for other likely confounding social and demographic characteristics. The statistical methods used to determine this are sufficiently sophisticated to suggest that the paternal incarceration itself is the cause of children completing fewer years of education than children of never-incarcerated fathers.

Association of Parental Incarceration with Non-Cognitive Outcomes

Incarceration also hurts children’s noncognitive outcomes. Children of parents who have been incarcerated are more prone to learning disabilities than are children whose parents were never behind bars.

Children with incarcerated parents are 48 percent more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than children with non-incarcerated parents. They are 23 percent more likely to suffer from developmental delays. Children with incarcerated parents, especially sons of incarcerated fathers, are 43 percent more likely to suffer from behavioral problems.

These differences show up in comparisons of otherwise similar children, even those who experience other disruptive events like parental divorce or death, and after accounting for other characteristics that are generally understood to cause learning disabilities.

Figure 5 summarizes studies that describe the increased likelihood that children of parents who have ever been incarcerated will have various negative outcomes, in comparison to the likelihood that children of never-incarcerated parents will have them.


The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security. 
The Economic Policy Institute’s mission is to inform and empower individuals to seek solutions that ensure broadly shared prosperity and opportunity.

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