One out of every 14 children in Washington state has at least one parent who is or has been incarcerated. These 109,000 kids’ counterparts nationwide total 5.1 million. The number of children affected by incarceration in Washington is 6.5 times greater than the number of inmates in the state’s 12 correctional centers. The needs of these children, as they face increased risks and significant obstacles in life, are usually overlooked.
In a new KIDS COUNT report released today, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation proposes recommendations that state and local policymakers should adopt to help the children and families of inmates.
While states spend heavily on corrections, few resources exist to support children and families who are left behind. These kids and families often struggle with emotional and financial instability as a result of having an incarcerated parent. Many children of incarcerated parents experience increased poverty and stress—which research shows can have as much impact on their well-being as abuse or domestic violence.
Findings from the report include:
- Seven percent of children in Washington state (109,000) have a parent that is or has been incarcerated, which is identical to the national rate. Among states, the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent varies dramatically, from only 3 percent in New Jersey to 13 percent in Kentucky.
- Nationally, the number of children with a father in prison nearly doubled between 1991 and 2007, and those with a mother behind bars more than doubled. Children with a parent who is incarcerated are typically younger and living in low-income families of color, usually with a young single mother who has limited education. Most are younger than 10.
- Nationally, more than 15 percent of the children with parents in federal prison—and more than 20 percent with parents in state prison—are younger than 4. Compared with their white peers, African-American and Latino kids are seven and three times more likely, respectively, to have a parent incarcerated.
The KIDS COUNT report offers common-sense steps officials can take to address the increased poverty and stress that children of incarcerated parents experience, as well as to address the disproportional toll of incarceration on families and communities of color. They include:
- Ensuring children are supported while parents are incarcerated, as well as after they return;
- Connecting parents that have returned to the community with pathways to employment; and
- Strengthening communities, particularly those disproportionally affected by incarceration and re-entry, to promote family stability and opportunity.
In Washington state, progress is being made to support the families of people who are incarcerated. This past legislative session, the House and Senate unanimously passed a law allowing formerly incarcerated adults to petition a court for a “Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity” that would become part of the adult’s record—showing potential landlords and employers that the former prisoner has fulfilled the conditions of their sentence and is paying off (or has paid off) any fines. This improves opportunities for housing and employment. House Bill 1390 was also introduced, which would have eased the financial blow of incarceration on a family experiencing incarceration. While the bill did not pass, its introduction is illustrative of building momentum in our state to reduce the impact of incarceration on families.
The confinement of a parent should not close the doors to opportunity for a child and their family forever. Washington state lawmakers should work alongside communities and families that have experienced incarceration to enact common-sense reforms that reverse the damage of incarceration on kids, families, and communities.