Laws designed to address the consequences of crime scarcely acknowledge children whose parents are incarcerated. For instance, legislation providing rights and benefits to victims of crime defines victims in a way that excludes offenders’ children. The absence of government aid to children with incarcerated parents demonstrates a massive oversight affecting millions of our most vulnerable citizens each year.
The impact of parental incarceration is well-documented and devastating. Children who lose even one parent to incarceration miss out on critical emotional and mental support, face financial instability, are negatively socialized toward and distrust authority figures, and are at risk of entering an intergenerational cycle wherein they and their children are more likely to be poor and engage in criminal behavior.
Several private programs exist throughout the United States to address the needs of children with incarcerated parents. But given that this population is composed of approximately two million children nationwide, private programs simply lack the resources to fully address every child’s needs. There are state and local governments in the United States taking small steps toward addressing parental incarceration, but each existing public program is insufficient.
To make meaningful progress, states should recognize the central role children with incarcerated parents play in the criminal legal system and they should revise their victims’ rights legislation to include children whose parents are incarcerated in the definition of “victim.” Additional governmental support should be directed to offenders’ children and to organizations working to remedy parental incarceration.