Incarceration

The Effects of Paternal Incarceration on Children

Sara Wakefield
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

Key Findings

  • Providing alternative interventions (mental health care and treatment for addiction) to incarceration is critical to improve outcomes for children of incarcerated parents.
  • Paternal incarceration is associated with statistically significant increases in aggression in children regardless of other controls such as socioeconomic status, parental characteristics, and prior paternal incarceration.
  • There is little overlap between being a risky father and the seriousness or type of criminal conviction that leads to incarceration.

Description

In the article, “Distinguishing Petty Offenders from Serious Criminals in the Estimation of Family Life Effects,” Wakefield and her co-authors examined whether the seriousness of parental crime impacts children differently. To conduct their research, the authors used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey that is a cohort study of 5,000 children in 20 large cities, which was the ideal subset for this study, disadvantaged families most at risk of parental incarceration. Families were recruited at birth and followed up with one, three, five and nine years after birth. The study found paternal incarceration was associated with higher rates of aggression in children regardless of socioeconomic status, parental characteristics, and prior paternal incarceration. Previous research has shown that “petty offenders” are most harmful to families but this study did not indicate that there is an overlap between the seriousness or type of criminal conviction leading to incarceration and being a risky father.

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