“Education policymakers and many educators continue to insist that in order to narrow the achievement gap, we must tinker with what is happening in the classroom … improve the way schools are functioning,” said the EPI research associate Leila Morsy, the report’s co-author and a lecturer at the University of New South Wales. “[Yet] making changes to criminal-justice policy can make as much, if not more, of a difference [for children].”
Acknowledging that a significant body of research already exists on the discriminatory system that incarcerates black men at six times the rate of white men, and about 2.5 times the rate of Hispanic men, Morsy and her colleague trained their sights on “the disparate impact that this has on children, and how African American children suffer disproportionately.” Morsy said the EPI study is the first of its kind to compile all of the harms children of imprisoned parents suffer—academic, behavioral, and health impediments—and to draw a direct link between parental incarceration and children doing worse in school.
The report shows that having an incarcerated parent translates to a range of learning obstacles and health challenges. After a parent is imprisoned, children’s grade-point averages fall, as the likelihood of dropping out of school rises. Compared to children of non-incarcerated parents, these youth show a higher incidence of anxiety (51 percent more likely) and depression (43 percent), and are considerably more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (72 percent), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (48 percent), and behavioral issues (43 percent).
The analysis also finds that incarcerating parents leads to intergenerational trauma. Children of incarcerated adults are at greater risk for economic instability due to the loss of their family’s main income provider, and as a result more often end up in foster care or homeless—both of which are significantly correlated to academic underperformance. The children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to find themselves incarcerated eventually, repeating the cycle.
Importantly, Morsy said, the report’s data takes socioeconomic and demographic characteristics into account that could be used to mitigate the findings—including race, age, gender, parents’ educational attainment, and poverty status. “We reviewed studies across a number of different disciplines [like] epidemiology and sociology,” she said, adding that because the studies carefully control for factors that might contribute to poor outcomes “it suggests that it's parental incarceration itself that's the cause … and not the qualities of the children themselves or the children's families.”
Interestingly, the report is heavily weighted toward incarcerated black fathers despite shifting gender trends in who is arrested and jailed. In totality, far more men than women are currently imprisoned. Yet a study released last August by the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal-justice-reform think tank, showed the number of women in local jails—the majority of them black or Hispanic, and nearly 80 percent of them mothers—has grown 14-fold since 1970, representing the fastest-growing U.S. correctional population. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of women (82 percent) are jailed for nonviolent offenses.