Measuring the Effects of a Mother’s Incarceration


Children whose mothers are less likely to be incarcerated are more adversely impacted when their mothers are sent to jail or prison, according to a new study in the journal Criminology and Public Policy.

Researchers used data from Princeton University’s Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which follows nearly 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000.

The study found that children whose parents have a high likelihood of incarceration are often the least negatively impacted by it. Researchers note that these children often experience a range of extreme disadvantages, in addition to maternal incarceration, which drive unfavorable outcomes.

“One explanation … could be that children stop accumulating adverse consequences once they reach a certain point of saturation. A related explanation could be that maternal incarceration offers relief from other stressors such as domestic violence or economic deprivation,” researchers wrote.

The study examined caregiver-reported internal and external “problem behavior,” vocabulary test scores and juvenile delinquency in children whose parents were incarcerated.

For children of mothers who are unlikely to experience incarceration, the negative consequences of maternal incarceration could be driven by at least three factors, all of which may operate simultaneously and all of which potentially call for different policy interventions: (a) jail incarceration as opposed to prison incarceration, (b) incarceration for a crime that did minimal—or no—harm to their children, and (c) inadequate family supports for coping with maternal incarceration.”

Read the full study HERE.

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