Skip to main content

ABF Convenes Conference at White House on Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children

August 26, 2013, Press releases


CONTACT:           Amy Schlueter

                                    312.988.6548 (voice)

                           312.988.6619 (fax)


                           TWITTER: @ABFResearch        

American Bar Foundation Convenes Conference at White House on Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children

ABF and National Science Foundation Gather National Experts to Shine Light on Collateral Costs to Children

CHICAGO, IL – On the heels of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s address at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting calling for major reforms in the criminal justice system and decrying the overpopulation of non-violent offenders in prisons, leading national experts gathered at the White House last week to examine the effects of incarcerated parents on their children. The conference, “Parental Incarceration in the United States: Bringing Together Research and Policy to Reduce Collateral Costs to Children” was jointly sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation and was held in the White House Executive Office Building on  August 20, 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and policymakers to review the latest research findings and begin to develop recommendations for policymaking bodies.

Led by John Hagan, Research Professor at American Far Foundation and the John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University, and his co-author, Holly Foster, a sociologist at Texas A&M university, the conference aimed to (1) review current knowledge about parental imprisonment and child well-being; (2) document programs designed to reduce negative effects of parental incarceration on children; (3) address problems stemming from parental involvement with the justice system; and (4) identify best practices for improving the lives of children of incarcerated parents. Said Hagan, “The overarching goal of the conference is to inform efforts to mitigate costs to a generation of affected children.”  Hagan and Foster were joined by Christopher Wildeman, Yale University sociologist, Sara Wakefield, criminal justice scholar at Rutgers University, Joyce Arditti, professor of human development at Virginia Tech, Senator Mark Leno, California State Assemblyman, and Judge Bernice B. Donald, of U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, among some twenty other leading scholars, policymakers and practitioners.

The exchanges among the experts on the high cost of incarceration to children and to American society were based on some sobering statistics:

  • Approximately half of all imprisoned persons in the United States are parents
  • Parental incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color
  • 1 in 4 black children have had an incarcerated parent
  • Fully 1 in 2 black children of high school dropout fathers have had an incarcerated parent v.  that of roughly 1 in 13 white children of high school dropout fathers
  • The overall U.S. College graduation rate of 40% drops to about 1-2% among children of mothers who are imprisoned
  • About 15% of the children of imprisoned fathers graduate from college
  • Children of incarcerated parents also demonstrate difficulty transitioning to successful adult lives, showing high rates of unemployment, lower educational achievement, and greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system themselves.

Recommendations coming out of the conference on improvement to the outcomes for children of incarcerated parents called for greater cooperation between researchers, advocates, policymakers and practitioners. Emily Bever Nichols of the University of Virginia recommended that “policy and programming should focus on expanding school-based services and drop-out prevention for youth with household member incarceration.”  She added that judges should be made aware of these unintended consequences for children.  Similarly, Myrna Raeder, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School, urged that “Judges should be better trained concerning the impact of parental incarceration on children to take better advantage of their discretion in sentencing, particularly when the defendant has committed a nonviolent crime and has sole or primary parenting responsibility.” She argued that furthermore to sustain parent-child contact, “judges should have the power to take distance from home into account in sentencing, as well as the power to decide where a prisoner should be housed.”

Attorney General Eric Holder stated in his remarks to the American Bar Association just one week before that, “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”

A formal report on the conference outcome is forthcoming.

Conference highlights can be accessed on Twitter @ABFResearch.

The conference is part of an on-going research project conducted by Hagan and Foster to better understand the effects of parental incarceration on children, families, and communities.  Their research project, “Punishment Regimes and the Multi-Level Effects of Parental Imprisonment: Inter-Institutional, Inter-Generational and Inter-Sectional Models of Inequality and Exclusion,” is funded by both the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation and has resulted in many publications and academic conference papers.

About the American Bar Foundation

The ABF is the nation's leading research institute for the empirical study of law. An independent, nonprofit organization for more than sixty years, ABF seeks to advance the understanding and improvement of law through research projects of unmatched scale and quality on the most pressing issues facing the legal system in the United States and the world.


« Return to Press releases

Site design by Webitects

© 2023 American Bar Foundation (
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611-4403
(312) 988-6500
Contact Us
Contact the Fellows
Media Contacts
Privacy policy
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in ABF publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Bar Foundation or the American Bar Association. The AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION, ABF and related seal trademarks as used by the American Bar Foundation are owned by the American Bar Association and used under license.