Policy debates about incarceration rarely focus on the impact on children. Yet, we know that when a parent is in jail or prison, it creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects like poverty, changes in living situations, and mental and emotional health issues.

A new KIDS COUNT® policy report, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, estimates 135,000 children in Kentucky have had a parent incarcerated, according to data collected in 2011/2012. At 13 percent, Kentucky’s percentage of children who have had an incarcerated parent is nearly double that of the national average of 7 percent, and it is the highest percent by population in the nation.

A Shared Sentence, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, highlights the obstacles children who have had an incarcerated parent face throughout their lives. It also focuses on solutions to mitigate the trauma children experience and ensure they have the best opportunity to succeed.

The report notes that an increased reliance on incarceration for what are widely considered nonviolent offenses led to more parents in jail or prison. Several states, including Kentucky, have worked to reform justice systems in recent years. Secretary John Tilley of the Kentucky Justice Cabinet, in his previous role as a state representative, was among those who led the criminal justice reforms in Kentucky.

When talking with Secretary Tilley, he shared the following reflections about the reforms:

In 2010, Kentucky was the epicenter of a national crisis of prison growth, as our state’s population of inmates had increased nearly four times faster than the national average over the prior decade. This wreaked havoc on Kentucky’s most vulnerable families, leaving too many households in turmoil and far too many children separated from a parent. With 2011’s HB 463, we took proactive steps to right-size our prison populations, reunite families, hold offenders accountable, increase drug treatment, and reduce re-offense rates.  The legislation also calls for a better return on public safety tax dollars, demanding transparency and accountability.

A Shared Sentence also offers several policy recommendations to help prioritize the needs of children with incarcerated parents. As an example, when children cannot remain at home due to parental incarceration, prioritizing placement with kin and providing support to kin caregivers, such as access to child care, can minimize the disruption and trauma experienced by the child.

Additionally, families often need support during reunification and reentry. Prisons and community organizations can provide family counseling and parenting courses while parents are incarcerated and after they are released. For example, the Home of the Innocents offers the Parents Acquiring Strengths and Skills (PASS) parent education program once a week to women housed at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections.

Mary Adkins, a current inmate at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, participates in the PASS program and shared the following about how it has helped improve her self-esteem and self-worth as a parent.

I have five children and sometimes I need extra help. This class has helped me so far to learn how to listen to my children. My kids have a voice too. Also, that it is okay to be stern and it is okay to give in within reason. I feel if more parents had the opportunity and the ability, this program would help so many families.

Finally, connecting parents who have returned to the community with employment opportunities is vital to supporting their children. For example, expanding the types of offenses that are eligible for being expunged from records for those people who stay on track after release, as the Kentucky General Assembly recently acted on, can positively impact children. We applaud the Kentucky General Assembly for passing HB 40 in the 2016 legislative session to expand record expungement for certain lower level felonies. We know this will help many parents get back to work and better provide for their families.

A Shared Sentence highlights the devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families, and communities. The good news is that Kentucky’s leaders have an array of ways to support kids during and after a parent’s incarceration. Kentucky has made several positive movements but we have a long way to go to better support children who have experienced parental incarceration.

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Download the report here: A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.