The Burden of Incarceration: 1 in 28 Kids Have a Parent Behind Bars

Heartbreaking facts:

2.7 million children have a parent behind bars-1 in every 28 children (3.6 percent) has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

That’s from a new Pew Report written by superstar sociologists?Bruce Western and?Becky Pettit.? These are the go-to folks for anyone trying to understand the current?mass incarceration.? The full report is?here and it’s summarized?here.

Why isn’t this the family values issue that we are all talking about?? I won’t pretend to know what we should do, but public indifference to the plight of these innocents can’t be right.


People are in jail for a reason. If they were let out, many of them, especially the men, would not be caring for their children.

What fraction of the parents you are writing about were
(1) married to the other parent
(2) gainfully employed

before being incarcerated? Most were not, I bet.


"Why isn't this the family values issue that we are all talking about?"

Because "family values" are not about helping actual families. They are about controlling other people's sex lives. Pro-lifers only care about children from conception to birth. After that, they're on their own.


Until we go bankrupt paying for incarceration there will be no changes. There is a large segment of the country that views any assistance to convicts as frivolous and wasteful, and refuses to see that releasing people from prison with no skills or restricting their employment opportunities keeps them committing crimes. We no longer believe in paying for one's crime and then coming back into society and contributing to it. If we have zero tolerance in schools for minor misbehavior on the part of children why should we extend any charity to ex convicts trying to make a living and support a family? The obvious answer escapes most people: because ex cons have a right to be able to support their families and themselves. And educating them or training them in a trade to earn a living, assuming that they can find a job, is better than putting them back in prison.


I'd be interested to see the companion statistic: how many parents of minor children are behind bars? I suspect that the rate is much lower than half that of the children (since two parents per child . . .). The question would then be why people who end up behind bars tend to have more children.

Mark Wolfinger

To me the sad news is that the people who hurt millions (think Goldman Sachs, AIG traders etc), go unpunished when the guy who uses a narcotic ends up in prison.

There is something very wrong with our penal system.



"Why isn't this the family values issue that we are all talking about?"

Because prisoners and felons can't vote.

Eileen M. Wyatt

@Tumbolian (#4), the report mentions that more than half of all inmates have minor children, so the rate is 14x that of the children.

I suspect this is because crime rate tends to track percentage of young men in the population (most of the incarcerated parents are fathers) and if a man is young, any children he's fathered are likely also to be quite young.

Tyson F

The 'War on Drugs' has certainly worked well over the past 40 years.


It's not an issue because there's no popular solution. Either you (A) fail to put people in jail or (B) work to prevent people from having kids. While both are actually good ideas (the latter only if done with incentives and education, and not coercion), both are political non-starters. We imprison people far to actively, and some incentives for people to be more responsible about childbirth would probably net huge returns, but people have no sympathy for "criminals" and people are terrified of government intervention in fertility due to past misconduct.


"Pro-lifers only care about children from conception to birth."

Holy crap that wins the prize for the most cynical thing I have ever heard. Congratulations.

Now compare that to the alternative: "That child will not have a good life, so let's kill him now." I can see why that's preferable.

Mike B

Remember that prisons have largely replaced state mental institutions for most people in the lower classes. De-institutionalization didn't mean that those with mental illness actually got outpatient or community based care, they just ended up in jail. Frontline reported that 500,000 people in our prison population are mentally ill. If you discount those from the total prison population the incarceration rate isn't "as" bad.


Re #2: "Pro-lifers only care about children from conception to birth. After that, they're on their own."

Not quite. From birth to puberty, yes, but once they become teens, the "Abstinence Education" brigade takes over.


People who get caught and sent to jail tend to be irresponsible. Thus our criminal population will be skewed towards those likely to not take precautions or think toward the future. People with those behavior patterns will tend to have them in all aspects of their life and will thus tend to have unprotected sex. This will, over time, lead to more children than those who are trying to be responsible.

Additionally there are other studies which show people in general are getting married older and having kids later. But those studies tend to show that for people who focus on their career early. If you have a career you are less likely to be committing crimes, or if you commit crimes you are more likely to be able to avoid incarceration for them.

So I wonder what the numbers would look like if this was taken into account.

Joe H.


Oh America.

Having an incarceration rate nearly 5 times that of any comparable nation is pretty unique.

Let's just keep getting "tougher on crime" till everyone that isn't above the poverty line is in prison.

Perhaps 'criminals' are the only remaining scapegoat that EVERY politician can point at.

Yet I don't understand how being tough on crime can go hand in hand with cutting government expenses.

Matt J.

Answering #14: Of course, as it is being done now, "being tough on crime" contradicts cutting government expenses. But consider this: perhaps the real problem is that we are not tough enough on crime. If instead of putting people in jail for marijuana offenses, we put them in jail for criminal hypocrisy, then all the politicians who built their careers on "get tough on criminals" platforms would be in prison instead.

Then of course, we should put the prisoners to work building our infrastructure in all the many ways these same politicians blocked Congress from doing in the Stimulus Bill. This would not only keep those criminally hypocritical politicians from doing more harm to the republic, but it would stimulate the economy to recovery.

Now the only downside to all this is figuring out who gets to decide whose hypocrisy really is criminal. For hypocrisy itself, in one form or another, is so widespread, if we criminalize it all there really would be only about 4 people left outside of prison!

But wait! Doesn't that mean we have identified the real problem now after all?



While I would question just how much of a difference such parents would be if released from prison, I do think that jailing people for wanting to feel the calm, relaxed euphoria of narcotics is wrong.

We don't jail smokers for wanting to feel whatever it is they feel from cigarettes.

We don't jail drinkers for getting a buzz--so long as they aren't driving or disturbing the peace.

But let someone--often from a poor neighborhood and in difficult circumstances--want to escape the pressures of life for a while by taking a pill...and it's off to jail with them.

Again, taking pills might be a marker for other bad behavior for many people, making the parental issue a moot point. However, we don't feel that way about cigarettes and drinking.

It's just a simple matter of allowing it. Why should someone who can't find a job to save his life not have the pleasure of at least escaping for a while?

Or the person who has worked hard all day enjoy whatever it is they enjoy?

Oh, I forgot--the drug lords don't want it legal; that would put them out of business. And the police don't want it legal either, since that would reduce the number of perps on the streets, which would reduce job security.

And some don't want it legal out of sincere good intentions. But all it does, it seems, is make criminals out of people who are not doing anything really different that the guy who is enjoying a beer after a hard day's work.

And, no, I'm not on pills--ha! I just understand better after having underwent severe surgical complications that forced me to take pain killers for several weeks.



The paying for incarceration is useless because it doesn't give any positive benefits or changes. If the parent or adult is in jail then it is because there is no proof to prove that they are innocent or that they haven't done anything at all. We have to admit that the percentage of adults that are "mistakenly" incarcerated is very low, thus proving that the majority of those adults incarcerated have a reason to be there.


California *is* going broke paying for incarceration. Which is why I'm for the flawed proposition to legalize marijuana. This can't go on!


Incarceration has become a huge problem in the country, a lot of money has been going into it. Although a lo of money is being spent on incarceration, even more has to be spent on education. Ways to reduce costs of jail must be found o shift that money into other areas. By using more money for education the government is helping mold society, for those students, and children are the future.

Educating h=the childhood of America helps give the children special skills, so that more of them can look for jobs that require those special skills. Jobs that require no real special skill are very scarce due to so many people's lack of skills.


In the entire dramatic life of these people, the ones being more affected are the children. Their parents didn't thought about their kids and the opportunity cost of their future. This isn't a sunk cost, this is a real deal and an issue made by prisoners own fault. What will happen to this children? Will they follow their parents steps? This is a great marginal cost to the state or whoever is taking care of this children because nowadays it is very expensive to take care of a child. Although there is a lot of subsidizing by the government to a person raise a kid or an extra kid it is a big marginal cost. So, a great recommendation to parents will be that they should think of their opportunity cost before acting wrong because if they go to jail the future of their children will be bad.