How Criminal Justice Policy Impacts Family Life

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Photo by Roland Tanglao via Flickr

Researchers should spend more time analyzing the impact of incarceration on inmates’ families as they evaluate proposals for criminal justice reform, says a recent article published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The article is part of the May issue of the journal, which discusses the impact of incarceration on the children and spouses of inmates, analyzing variations across different types of facilities and different types of crimes. (The articles are available to readers for a fee. Journalists who would like to read copies of the articles free of charge should email TCR Deputy Editor Alice Popovici at

Owing to almost 40 years of punitive policies, a “constellation of legal disabilities, piled disproportionately upon the poor and people of color, is overwhelmingly repressive and likely inflicts harm not only on individuals but also on families,” write authors Sara Wakefield, Hedwig Lee, and Christopher Wildeman in an article entitled “Tough on Crime, Tough on Families? Criminal Justice and Family Life in America.”

“For the children of incarcerated parents, parental incarceration increases mental health and behavioral problems, infant mortality, homelessness, grade retention, body mass index, harsh parenting, and material hardship, among many other social problems,” the authors write.

The American Academy of Political and Social Science is hosting a briefing on the research from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. today.


3 thoughts on “How Criminal Justice Policy Impacts Family Life

  1. It completely devastates children and rips the soul out of parents. Empathically imagine being on either side. My son was 9 when his father and I were put in prison. He lived with my mother, and he was alone a lot. He was used to a stay-at-home mom and homeschooling, cookies and milk, but by the time he was 14 he was placed in drug court and spent most of his teen life in the detention center. There he met more people to network with and create a family of his own. He is now 21 and just kicked a heroin addiction…hopefully for the last time.

    On the other side of the fence, my grandson (age 4 came over and as we were playing he looked at me and said, “The cops are mean!” I asked him why he thought that.

    He said, “Are you kidding me? They stole my mother.”

    His father is also in prison and he lives with his grandmother on his mother’s side. He is sweet and kind. He didn’t deserve this. This is dual punishment – there are alternatives.

    Especially for non-violent offenders, consider the child.

    According to USA today (

    2.1 million children have at least one parent incarcerated. That is 1 in 14 who have a parent(s) incarcerated.

    Most children, with a locked up parent, suffer from poor mental and physical health, and a low self-esteem.

    Many children develop PTSD if they witness their parent being arrested.

    Help our children. Stop the mass incarceration.

    Drugs are a mental health problem – not a criminal offense. And other alternatives for people who make mistakes.

  2. I am moved by Scarlet Felon’s post about the pain and true cost of incarceration. Many people are effected by injustices in the system but children especially do not have the same capacity to cope with these injustices as older people do. Keeping families together and working on healing is essential which means policy makers , courts, social workers etc. must look at the care of every individual. If a parent or both parents are targeted, children and teens will also suffer and the suffering goes on and on. A good article which focuses on the psychological impact of wrongful convictions is by Leslie Scott.

  3. I was incarcerated at 19. While it was difficult for me, it was devastating for my wife and parents. After incarceration I completed a BA and Masters from major institutions. Still I felt discrimination for years. I overcame much of this thanks to those who took a chance on me. The pain of my parents and wife were indescribable. Latter as a chaplain in a facility for women I saw the heart break in children. I worked for better treatment with limited results. Today the trend is backwards.

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