The RAND Corporation

Reducing Harm from Mass Incarceration: Investing in Parents and Children

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

There are 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails—a 500% increase in one generation. As the incarcerated population has exploded, so has the number of minor children of incarcerated parents— nearly 3 million. They are the invisible victims of mass incarceration, experiencing the trauma of losing a parent, but also being at higher risk of developing depression, doing poorly in school, and becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. This country finally recognizes that we cannot sustain such high rates of incarceration and the collateral consequences for families and communities. We have the evidence of what works to increase the success of incarcerated parents when they return to their communities and to help their children thrive. To bring about transformative change that advances justice and equity, RAND and its partners propose a two-generation approach, bringing together evidence-based strategies to improve outcomes for incarcerated parents and their children.

Problem Statement

An estimated 2.2 million persons are incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons. Among the 700,000 released each year, 40 percent will be reincarcerated within three years. The nation’s overreliance on incarceration has exacted high costs on families and communities, disproportionately affecting persons and communities of color. The toll is especially consequential for the 1.1 million fathers and 120,000 mothers who are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and their nearly 3 million minor children. In total, approximately 5 million children will have an incarcerated parent at some time before they reach adulthood. These children are the invisible victims of mass incarceration. They not only experience the emotional loss of a parent, but they must also cope with altered systems of care and the loss of financial support. In addition to the stigma of having an incarcerated parent, they are at risk of developing depression, doing poorly in school, and becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. The experience of parental incarceration is one of the traumatic events defined as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are associated with detrimental impacts on lifetime health, economic status, and well-being. States are grappling with how to shift public spending for criminal justice from punishment toward investments in prevention and, for those incarcerated, rehabilitation. To accelerate this equity-driven change in priorities, policymakers and the public need to see that cost-effective strategies can be brought to scale that lead to successful reentry for incarcerated parents and limit the unfavorable effects of parental incarceration on children.

Solution Overview

To bring about transformative change that advances justice and equity, our solution takes a two-generation approach, bringing together evidence-based strategies to improve outcomes for incarcerated parents and their children. Our voluntary program will reach incarcerated mothers and fathers in state prisons, with one or more minor children, who will return to local communities, and who do not have a history of violence or abuse that puts their children and family members at risk of harm. For parents, we will provide (in-prison and post-release) education and vocational training, and intensive case management and reentry supports (e.g., housing, employment, drug treatment). In-prison supports will include well-designed parent education classes, parent support groups, and opportunities for developmentally appropriate parent-child contact. For minor children and their caregiver(s), family navigators will connect them with age-appropriate, trauma-informed programs such as home visiting, mentoring, and cognitive behavioral therapy. We will deliver this intensive mix of evidence-based services to at least 3,000 incarcerated mothers and fathers and their estimated 9,000 minor children in five to seven states. Progress is evident when incarcerated parents acquire the education and skills needed to boost their post-release employment and earnings; increase the financial resources provided for their children; enhance support for their children’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth; and do not return to prison. Progress includes stronger parent-child bonds and improved outcomes for children throughout childhood and the transition to adulthood. Communities will experience less crime and a more favorable social and economic trajectory as a result of systems change.

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