Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission
The United States Sentencing Commission plays a critical role in criminal justice policy. The USSC’s job is “to collect, analyze, research, and distribute a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as an information resource for Congress, the executive branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners,” the academic community, and the public.”1
Given the growing concerns about the impacts of incarceration on children, we believe the Commission should explore this area more fully. Specifically, we urge the USSC to undertake a substantial research project to assess the scope of the problem at the federal level and consider whether the guidelines should be amended to provide judges more authority to depart from a recommended sentence range to address the needs of children of incarcerated parents.
Scope of the Problem
With roughly half of all those incarcerated having minor dependents, over two million children in the United States are directly affected by parental incarceration. Recent research on the problem has established the fact that minors with one or more incarcerated parents have statistically significant increases in mental health and behavioral problems, and lower standardized test scores than control groups.
Equally troubling, this dynamic goes beyond the families of incarcerated fathers and mothers. Children who merely attend school with those having incarcerated parents face similar mental health and academic challenges.
As a result, a system that fails to take into account these effects will repeatedly undermine the well- being of communities as incarceration has significant social costs, including intergenerational transmission of poverty, crime, violence and incarceration.2 Research has found that the concentration of risk found within many families and communities facing parental incarceration, such as poverty, adverse neighborhood conditions, and violence exposure, may be predictive of an intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration3 Failure to address these realities will lead to greater decay of communities and an increase in incarcerations, all of which will be borne by the taxpayers.
Decades of research documenting the detrimental impact of parental incarceration on children has shown a close yet complex connection between parental incarceration and adverse outcomes for children. Scholars at Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology have conducted a series of investigations on this topic.4 Their research shows that parental imprisonment is associated with children having three times the odds of engaging in anti-social behavior and experiencing more negative outcomes as they grow to adulthood (e.g., school failure, unemployment, underemployment, etc.). The studies also found that missing an incarcerated parent was associated with sadness, withdrawn behavior, sleep problems, aggressive behavior, and truancy.
A similar study sponsored by the National Academies of Science, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,6 confirmed that paternal imprisonment directly correlates with higher rates of delinquency and other behavioral problems suffered by children of incarcerated parents.7