A new report describes the impact of incarceration on families • Photo from KIDS COUNT's Twitter.
A new report describes the impact of incarceration on families • Photo from KIDS COUNT’s Twitter.

A new KIDS COUNT policy report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “A Shared Sentence,” said millions of children in the United States have an incarcerated parent and, as a result, struggle with emotional and financial instability.

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—a conservative estimate. 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.

According to “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” 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. Compared with their white peers, black and Latino kids are seven and three times more likely, respectively, to have lost a parent, even temporarily, to the prison system, the report also finds.

These conditions are a product of inequitable policies and practices, from school discipline to policing to parole. As a result, communities of color pay a disproportionate share of the social cost of incarceration, said Paola Maranan, executive director of the Children’s Alliance.

“The prison system is a destabilizer of children and their futures, particularly the futures of children of color,” Maranan said. “We must reject the policies that lead to the over-incarceration of people of color. Until we do, we need public policies that ensure continuity of care, economic security and an intact emotional bond between children and parents from all walks of life—so that all kids have real opportunity and a chance to thrive.”

In Washington State, lawmakers made some progress this past legislative session to lessen the harm done to children whose parents have been incarcerated.

House Bill 1390 sought to stop or restrict the accrual of interest on an inmate’s prison-associated fines or fees, and to allow judges to consider living expenses and other responsibilities, including child support, when deciding whether to sanction an individual for not paying legal financial obligations. While H.B. 1390 passed the state House, it did not receive a vote in the Senate.

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 an ex-offender has fulfilled his sentence and is paying off (or has paid off) associated fines. Placed among the personal records maintained by law enforcement, a Certificate of Restoration of Opportunity would improve an ex-offender’s opportunities for employment and housing.

Nationally, the Casey Foundation calls for judges, community organizations, and state and local governments to enact commonsense policies that protect children who have experienced the loss of a parent to the prison system from the adverse financial, health and developmental consequences. The report recommends:

  • Judges consider the impact on kids and families when making sentencing decisions about where parents will be confined.
  • States invest in prison education and training for in-demand jobs.
  • States and localities ensure that qualified job seekers are evaluated on their merits first.
  • State officials make health coverage and care available to newly released, eligible ex-offenders.

“Our nation’s overreliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives,” says Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation. “We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids—like all kids—have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve.”

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