Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children: A Two-Generation Approach

Center for American Progress

(December 2015)
Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children: A Two-Generation Approach

While the effects of parental incarceration on children and families are well-documented, this report argues that the family consequences that stem from the barriers associated with having a criminal record, whether or not the parent has ever been convicted or spent time behind bars are less appreciated. As the authors argue, a child’s life chances are strongly tied to his or her circumstances during childhood; thus, these barriers may not only affect family stability and economic security in the short term but also may damage a child’s long-term well-being and outcomes.

This analysis from the Center for American Progress estimates that between 33 million and 36.5 million children in the United States—nearly half of U.S. children—now have at least one parent with a criminal record. In this report, the authors argue that parental criminal records significantly exacerbate existing challenges among low-income parents and their families. The report explores the intergenerational effects of criminal records through five pillars of family well-being:

  • Income. Parents with criminal records have lower earning potential, as they often face major obstacles to securing employment and receiving public assistance.
  • Savings and assets. Mounting criminal justice debts and unaffordable child support arrears severely limit families’ ability to save for the future and can trap them in a cycle of debt.
  • Education.  Parents with criminal records face barriers to education and training opportunities that would increase their chances of finding well-paying jobs and better equip them to support their families.
  • Housing. Barriers to public as well as private housing for parents with criminal records can lead to housing instability and make family reunification difficult if not impossible.
  • Family strength and stability. Financial and emotional stressors associated with parental criminal records often pose challenges in maintaining healthy relationships and family stability.

The authors argue that, because these challenges affect such a large share of our nation’s children, the U.S. ignores these intergenerational consequences at our peril. Thus, the report makes the case for a “two-generation approach” to address barriers to opportunity associated with having a criminal record. The authors then offer policy recommendations to give both parents with criminal records and their children a fair shot.