Most of the over one million persons incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons on any given day and the millions more on probation or parole are parents. Although a considerable body of information has been collected about individuals who have been or are under some form of criminal justice system control, very little is known about their children, particularly those under the age of 18. There are approximately 10 million children in the U.S. who have had one or both parents incarcerated. These children and youth have little or no voice about who, in the absence of the parent who is the primary caregiver, will take care of them, or if they will be allowed to visit or communicate with the incarcerated parent. The children of parents involved in the criminal justice system have no voice because they are invisible to the larger society.
The national trend to use incarceration to punish even minor offenses guarantees that children will continue to be adversely affected by policies enacted with no consideration of the harm done to family systems. There are many complex and interrelated contributing factors: the intensification of politically motivated "get tough on crime" rhetoric and the "War on Drugs," public discourse about crime designed to instilled fear, the enactment of increasingly harsh sentencing laws such as "Three Strikes," and the ratings-driven media preoccupation with policing and arrests, leading to public support for a prison-building frenzy. The virtual disappearance of work, along with stores, transportation, and other components of a viable infrastructure, from many inner-city communities has resulted in a concentration of poverty that has devastated neighborhoods and marginalized residents, making them easy first to criminalize and then to dehumanize.
The original intent of this article was to examine what is presently known about the children of incarcerated parents. Its scope has been expanded to include the more realistic continuum of parental crime, arrest, incarceration, release, and recidivism that children experience and must contend with as their lives are disrupted, and sometimes shattered. We begin by placing present events into a larger historical and political context. Available information about the children of incarcerated parents is provided, followed by a discussion of caregivers, custody, and visitation issues. The next sections describe what is known about the impact on children of parental involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as observable intergenerational trends, and then look at how law enforcement and social service agencies regard and respond to children of arrested and incarcerated parents. We conclude with interventions that address and alleviate the problems resulting from parental involvement in the criminal justice system.
In 1990, the United States had the highest incarceration rate in the world, five times higher than France and Germany and over four times greater than Britain's rate (Foote, 1993). California has the dubious distinction of having the largest prison system in the country and the second largest in the world following China (Ibid.). One out of every eight U.S. prisoners is incarcerated in the Golden State. In less than 20 years, California's prison population has exploded by 631%, from 19,000 in 1977 to 139,000 in 1996; over 97,000 persons are presently on parole.(1) An additional 71,000 Californians were local jail inmates as of April 1996(2) and 400,000 former California jail inmates were on probation in 1995 (Criminal Justice Institute, 1994).
Changes in mandatory sentencing guidelines enacted during the mid-1970s have led to a significant shift in public policy favoring punishment over rehabilitation. Passage of the "Three Strikes"(3) legislation in the early 1990s has taken a decisive step in making the concept of rehabilitation historically obsolete.(4) To accommodate growing numbers of felons sentenced under the 1,000 new state laws specifying new offenses and increased sentences passed by the legislature (Foote, 1993), California has added 20 new prisons to its original 12 since the early 1980s (CDC, 1994). …