The Impact of Incarceration on Children

Incarcerating parents is often not in the best interest of their children, and research has identified a multitude of negative consequences that befall children when their caregivers become incarcerated. Research in this area is well documented and broadly falls into three categories that will be discussed in turn:

  • Research that examines the impact of parental incarceration on children broadly
  • Research examining the impact of maternal incarceration compared to paternal incarceration on children
  • Research specifically investigating the impact of maternal incarceration

Social, Psychological, and Physical Consequences

Parental incarceration broadly has been shown to have a number of negative social consequences for children left behind, including economic instability, mental health and behavioral problems, infant mortality, childhood homelessness, childhood inequality, and especially racial inequality.[i]

Furthermore, there are negative psychological consequences these children disproportionally face, such as increased antisocial behavior,[ii] learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and attention hyperactivity disorder, as well as behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems,[iii] depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety.[iv]

A child’s physical health is also damaged by experiencing parental incarceration—with increased likelihood of high cholesterol, asthma, migraines, HIV/AIDS, and fair/poor health.[v] Also, parental incarceration is associated with a higher BMI for female children.[vi]

Maternal vs. Paternal Incarceration

Research exploring the differential impact of maternal incarceration verses paternal incarceration generally finds that maternal incarceration may be the most detrimental. For instance, while both paternal and maternal incarceration contribute to residential instability that leads to arrest and re-arrest of children, only maternal incarceration is directly related to re-arrest.[vii]

Similarly, maternal incarceration is a much stronger predictor of foster care placement for children than paternal incarceration.[viii] Maternal incarceration increases the risk of intergenerational incarceration at a rate 2.5 times greater than paternal incarceration.[ix] Related, maternal incarceration—more so than paternal incarceration—causes disruption for children, which may lead to a greater risk for psychopathology and insecure attachment for those children later in life.[x]

Research focused solely on the consequences of maternal incarceration has found maternal incarceration impacts children’s subsequent criminal behavior, significantly increasing the probability of future crime.[xi] Moreover, children who experience maternal incarceration score substantially lower on cognitive tests than the average child.[xii]

On average, mothers have sentences five years shorter than those of fathers.[xiii] Relatively short sentences make it more likely for parents to re-enter their children’s lives upon release—and also make alternatives to incarceration seem more plausible.

Financial and Familial Costs

Beyond the negative consequences of caregiver incarceration on children, the price of incarceration is exorbitant. Estimates indicate that prisons cost taxpayers %5.4 billion annually, an average of $31,307 per prisoner per year.[xiv] Similarly, the annual costs of keeping children in foster care are considerable, estimated at $40,000 per child.[xv] Incarcerating caretakers and sending their children to the child welfare system costs billions of dollars that could be saved with the implementation of community alternatives. The extortionate costs of incarceration have led to recent bipartisan support of sentencing reform.[xvi]

In addition to the social and financial costs, the family unit itself is endangered by incarceration, with termination of parental rights as another potential collateral consequence of incarceration.[xvii] Lack of non-custodial sentencing alternatives, particularly in conjunction with unavailability of prison nurseries or similar programs, can lead directly to termination of parents’ rights to raise their children.[xviii] More than half of U.S. states consider incarceration as a factor in termination proceedings, independent from a showing that the criminal act for which the parent was sentenced was actually detrimental to the child.[xix]


[i] Wakefield, S., & Wildeman, C. (2013). Children of the prison boom: Mass incarceration and the future of American inequality. Oxford University Press.
[ii] Murray, J., Farrington, D. P., & Sekol, I. (2012). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 138(2), 175.
[iii] Turney, K. (2014). Stress Proliferation across Generations? Examining the Relationship between Parental Incarceration and Childhood Health. Journal of health and social behavior, 55(3), 302-319.
[iv] Lee, R. D., Fang, X., & Luo, F. (2013). The impact of parental incarceration on the physical and mental health of young adults. Pediatrics, 131(4), e1188-e1195.
[v] Lee, R. D., Fang, X., & Luo, F. (2013). The impact of parental incarceration on the physical and mental health of young adults. Pediatrics, 131(4), e1188-e1195.
[vi] Roettger, M. E., & Boardman, J. D. (2012). Parental incarceration and gender-based risks for increased body mass index: evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States. American journal of epidemiology, kwr409.
[vii] Tasca, M., Rodriguez, N., & Zatz, M. S. (2011). Family and residential instability in the context of paternal and maternal incarceration. Criminal justice and behavior, 38(3), 231-247.
[viii] Wildeman, C. & Western, B., (2010). Incarceration in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 157-177.
[ix] Dallaire, D. H. (2007). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family relations, 56(5), 440-453.
[x] Murray, J., & Murray, L. (2010). Parental incarceration, attachment and child psychopathology. Attachment & human development, 12(4), 289-309.
[xi] Huebner, B. M., & Gustafson, R. (2007). The effect of maternal incarceration on adult offspring involvement in the criminal justice system. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35(3), 283-296.
[xii] Poehlmann, J. (2005). Children’s family environments and intellectual outcomes during maternal incarceration. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(5), 1275-1285.
[xiii] Sabol, W. J., & Minton, T. D. (2008). Jail prisoners at midyear 2007. Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice. NCJ, 221945.
[xiv] Henrichson, C., & Delaney, R. (2012). The price of prisons: What incarceration costs taxpayers. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 25(1), 68-80.
[xv] Facts on Foster Care in America. (2006, May 30). Retrieved July 27, 2015, from
[xvi] Bade, R. (2015, July 15). Criminal justice reform gains bipartisan momentum. Retrieved July 31, 2015, from
[xvii] Kennedy, A., Children, Parents & the State: The Construction of A New Family Ideology, 26 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 78 (2011).
[xviii] See J. D. v. Superior Court, 2008 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2669 (Cal. App. 6th Dist. 2008)(upholding juvenile court’s termination of rights where incarcerated mother was unable to gain access to nursery program and the child was thus deemed to have been left without provision for support); but see J.B. v. Superior Court, 2009 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6695 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2009)(holding that because mother was enrolled and participating in FFP, protective services should not have removed her child); see also Eitenmiller, K. Bending the Bars for Mothers: How Prison Alternatives Can Build A Stronger Oregon, 92 Or. L. Rev. 755, 763-768 (2014).
[xix] Id. note 1, supra, at 98. Kennedy breaks statutory parental termination schemes into two conceptual categories, what she calls “clearly bad parent” and “impliedly bad parent” termination statutes. Those statutes allowing the court to take the fact of incarnation itself into account during termination proceedings fall into the latter category and exist in most states.