Children Are ‘Forgotten Victims’ of Incarceration, Prof Says

forgotten victims


Mass incarceration in the U.S. is more than a statistic, and it affects more than just the people behind bars, argued Prof. John Hagan, sociology and law, Northwestern University, at a lecture Monday in Uris Hall.


The forgotten victims of the incarceration state, Hagan said, are children whose parents are prisoners. As people born during the War on Drugs begin to come of age, the consequences of having imprisoned parents are now coming to light.


“Because [the spike in national incarceration numbers] began in the ’80s, and many of these children are now young adults, we’re seeing the unfolding life consequences on these children,” Hagan said. “Long-term negative effects are even witnessed in children living in places where there are many incarcerated parents, even if their own parents are not incarcerated.”


Children of incarcerated parents are at risk for future financial insecurity, food insecurity, lack of healthcare and low education, according to Hagan, who also noted the role race plays in the outcomes of at risk youth. Just as incarceration rates disproportionately affect minority groups, particularly African Americans, the children of prisoners who belong to minority groups have more negative “outcomes” in these areas.


Hagan, who received the Stockholm Prize in Criminology in 2009 and is co-director of the Center on Law & Globalization at the American Bar Foundation, emphasized the central role that state and local governments have played — and will continue to play — in both creating and resolving problems related to incarceration.


Hagan reviewed various federal acts and initiatives like President Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” President Reagan’s state-favoring “devolution revolution,” and President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and 1996 welfare reform law. These initiatives have all spawned not only the relatively high incarceration rate of the U.S., but also the serious problems that affect children of incarcerated individuals, according to Hagan.


“All of [these initiatives] impacted, in terms of jeopardizing and making more vulnerable, the needs and rights of children, particularly through the mass incarceration of parents, and so this whole theme of mass incarceration has become so prominent in American society,” Hagan said.


Citing several studies, notably the Add Health Study — a national longitudinal study of children from adolescence to adulthood — and his own research, Hagan described how the negative effects that come with a parent’s incarceration, particularly of a mother, last well into adulthood.


As for the future state of prison reform and national incarceration, Hagan said it will be state governments rather than the federal government that may have the biggest role to play.


Citing several studies showing the large variability among individual states in reducing — or in some cases failing to reduce — incarceration rates, Hagan emphasized the growing role individual state governments, and state welfare policies in particular, will play in reducing national incarceration rates.


“[One study] gave a big pitch for focusing on the states, on state-level data, and pointed to a persistence in the related trends of increasing incarceration rates and decrease in welfare support,” Hagan said.


Just how large the variability in incarceration rates between states really is has been revealed in more recent studies.


“There are a few states since 2010 that have really started to decline, places like New York, California, New Jersey, notably getting well into the double digits [of percentage in decreased incarceration]. But there’s still quite a number of states that have only decreased a little, and there’s even 10 or 12 states that are still increasing incarceration,” Hagan said. “It’s striking to me, how many states are still invested in punitiveness.”


These studies, coupled with the failed bipartisan criminal justice reform attempt in the Senate this past year, polarization in Congress and the results of the 2016 presidential election all point towards greater state influence, according to Hagan.


“If [the Federal Government] continue[s] the trend that I think goes back to the Johnson Administration, the trend towards increasing empowerment of states, block grants giving funds to states, there’s every reason to think that state variability [of prison population] will increase,” Hagan said.


Caught up in the politics of prison reform and mass incarceration are the futures of millions of children.


“I think we need to understand how these changes are influencing particularly the children of the prison generation. We now have an enormous number of children affected, now well into the millions,” Hagen said. “It’s crucial that we document these things, get [the information] out there quickly and into public discussion and put pressure on other states that are caught up on the punitive side.”