According to the latest estimates, more than 5 million children in this country have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. In fact, parents represent well over half of the individuals serving time in state and federal prisons.
The absence of their parents is just one of the losses these children face—losses that can affect them well beyond childhood. They lose security and stability in every sense of the word, as their remaining parent or other relatives struggle to make ends meet. They also contend with feelings of confusion, fear, anger, and even shame in the face of others’ judgment. And when parents return from prison, their criminal history comes home with them, thwarting their efforts to find a job and safe, affordable housing so they can support their families and fully contribute to their communities.
While a much-needed national debate on reforming our criminal justice system continues to unfold, parents serving time and reentering families today require immediate, practical solutions. State and local policymakers, courts, correctional systems, and community agencies can act right now to enable more parents to succeed as providers for their families and contributors to their communities, giving their children the stability, support, and opportunities they need to thrive.
First, parents need to see and stay connected with their kids during incarceration, a near impossibility when hundreds of miles separate them. State policymakers and judges can make prison-location assignments that allow families to maintain contact as much as possible, and prisons can develop visitation policies and spaces that create environments more suitable for family visits.
Correctional facilities also can offer courses that bolster parents’ ability to support and nurture their children while they are in prison, which could further strengthen their relationship with their kids upon their release. National Fatherhood Initiative’s InsideOut Dad, for example, helps incarcerated fathers connect with their families and build parenting skills. Correctional facilities in a number of states, including Alabama, Florida, New Jersey, and Virginia, have used this curriculum, and research shows it improves parenting skills and participating fathers’ contact with their children.
Second, parents need a steady job that pays well so they can properly support their children upon reentry. But many returning to the job market lack the education, training, and employment history that today’s employers seek. Having a criminal record reduces their odds of landing a good job, or even puts them out of the running entirely.
In a new report on parental incarceration, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (where I serve as president and CEO) recommends various ways that states, communities, and correctional facilities, among others, can connect incarcerated and returning individuals with economic opportunities, including jobs.
Prisons, for example, can offer training programs for jobs in high-demand sectors, such as information technology. States can take advantage of recently raised funding thresholds under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to support such programs, which have seen success in California’s San Quentin State Prison and in Philadelphia prisons. And community-based employment and training programs can look beyond the more typical construction or manufacturing jobs and help parents develop the entrepreneurial skills needed to start a small business.
To ensure returning parents have a shot at good jobs, more states and employers should join the “ban the box” movement, which calls for employers to postpone questions about criminal history until after an applicant has been identified as the most qualified candidate. About 20 states and hundreds of jurisdictions and businesses—including Georgia, most recently—have moved in this direction; more should follow suit.
Finally, all families need safe, affordable places to live if they’re to have any hope of achieving stability. Yet parents with a criminal record can encounter landlords and public housing restrictions that can prevent them from moving forward with their families. More state and local jurisdictions should foster family reunification, when appropriate, by requiring landlords to consider the person—including references for good conduct and type of criminal history—rather than discriminating based on his or her record. Such requirements are already in place in Newark, New Jersey, and Oregon.
We cannot forget that the people behind bars are fathers, mothers, and members of communities, and they don’t serve their sentences in isolation. Their children, families, and neighborhoods bear heavy burdens in their absence—burdens that persist even after they return. And their burdens stand to become ours as a nation if we don’t equip them and their families so that they can shoulder and, ultimately, put down that weight.