As many as one in ten African American students has an incarcerated parent. One in four has a parent who is or has been incarcerated. The discriminatory incarceration of African American parents is an important cause of their children’s lowered performance, especially in schools where the trauma of parental incarceration is concentrated. In this report, we review studies from many disciplines showing that parental incarceration leads to an array of cognitive and noncognitive outcomes known to affect children’s performance in school, and we conclude that our criminal justice system makes an important contribution to the racial achievement gap.
Educators have paid too little heed to this criminal justice crisis. Criminal justice reform should be a policy priority for educators who are committed to improving the achievement of African American children. While reform of federal policy may seem implausible in a Trump administration, educators can seize opportunities for such advocacy at state and local levels because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons. In 2014, over 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for nonviolent crimes. Over 600,000 of these were in state, not federal, prisons.
Research in criminal justice, health, sociology, epidemiology, and economics demonstrates that when parents are incarcerated, children do worse across cognitive and noncognitive outcome measures.
Key findings include:
An African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent. A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs.
Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to:
drop out of school
develop learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
misbehave in school
suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and homelessness
Each of these conditions presents a challenge to student performance.
To improve their students’ outcomes, educators should join forces with criminal justice reformers to:
eliminate disparities between minimum sentences for possession of crack vs. powder cocaine
repeal mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes
encourage President Obama to increase the pace of pardons and commutations in the final days of his term
increase funding for social, educational, and employment programs for released offenders