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Parental Incarceration Focus of White House Conference

John Hagan’s research seeks to better understand effects on children, families

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September 10, 2013 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Leading national experts gathered at the White House last month to review evidence from a growing field of research demonstrating that the high rate of American parental incarceration is harmful to the education, health and general well-being of children.

The conference, “Parental Incarceration in the United States: Bringing Together Research and Policy to Reduce Collateral Costs to Children,” is part of an ongoing research project conducted by John Hagan, the John. D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law at Northwestern University and research professor at the American Bar Foundation, and Holly Foster, associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. The project focuses on the effects of parental incarceration on children, families and communities.

Hagan said the overarching goal of the conference was to inform efforts to mitigate costs to a generation of affected children.

“Children do not choose their parents, and they are innocent of their parents’ crimes,” Hagan said. “Research on the impact on children is reframing questions about America’s high incarceration rate policies from the perspective of the rights of children.”  

The exchanges among the researchers, practitioners and policymakers on the high cost of incarceration to children and to society were based on some sobering statistics.

For example:

  • Approximately half of all imprisoned persons in the U.S. are parents
  • Parental incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color and
  • 1 in 4 black children have had an incarcerated parent

Jointly sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the conference brought together experts to review the latest research findings and begin to develop recommendations for policymaking bodies.

Some of the recommendations included expanding school-based services and drop-out prevention for youth with household member incarceration and giving judges more authority to take distance from home into account in sentencing as well as the power to decide where a prisoner should be housed.

A formal report on the conference outcome is forthcoming. 

For more on Hagan’s research and his role in organizing the White House conference on the issue of parental incarceration in the U.S. visit "Researching Law," the American Bar Foundation's quarterly newsletter.