One in 14 Children in U.S. Has Had a Parent in Jail or Prison

Among the pernicious collateral damage of mass incarceration is the devastation it causes in the lives of children who lose parents to prison. A new study from research firm Child Trends finds that the problem has reached troubling proportions, with one out of every 14 American children having one parent who is currently, or has previously been incarcerated. The numbers are a direct consequence of our system of over-incarceration;, America jails more of its citizens than any other country on Earth, in both raw numbers and by population percentage.


According to a Child Trends report released this morning, more than five million American children—or 7 percent of all of the country’s youth—has had a parent who lives with them spend time in prison or jail. The vast majority of those incarcerated parents, a staggering 99 percent, are fathers.

For black children, parental incarceration rates are even more troubling. The new study finds that one out of every nine black children under the age of 18 has a parent who is, or has been, in prison or jail. Other children disproportionately affected include poor children, children without a parent educated beyond high school and children living in rural areas.

Many children who have experienced parental incarceration often face other adverse childhood experiences. Per the report:

  • More than half had lived with someone who had a substance abuse problem, compared with less than 10 percent among children with no parental incarceration.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 had experienced parental divorce or separation, compared with 1 in 5 among children without parental incarceration.
  • More than one-third had witnessed violence between their parents or guardians, and one-third had witnessed or experienced violence in their neighborhood. Less than 10 percent of those without an incarcerated parent had experienced either one.
  • More than 1 in 4 had lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, and nearly 1 in 10 had experienced the death of a parent.

Studies show that parental incarceration can impact children’s emotional, social, mental health and education outcomes, particularly for children at younger ages. Researchers found that children age 6-11 are 9 percent more likely to experience difficulties in school than their peers who have not experienced parental incarceration (44 percent versus 35 percent). The numbers were similar for kids between the ages of 12 and 17 (43 versus 35 percent). Similarly, researchers write that younger school-age children “with an incarcerated parent were 9 points more likely to have emotional difficulties (73 versus 64 percent likelihood)” than other children.

Read the full Child Trends report

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