How a parent’s criminal record limits children

reportcover“The barriers associated with having a criminal record do not just result in lifelong punishment for the parent with the record; they also can significantly limit a child’s life chances.” This is according to a new report by the Center for American Progress that examines the multi-generational effects of collateral consequences and the cycle of poverty and lost opportunity that those consequences perpetuate.

A parent’s criminal record can affect everything from a child’s emotional and physical well-being to future economic and educational outcomes.  This is true even if the record was for a minor conviction that did not result in incarceration or, in some cases, an arrest that did not result in conviction at all.

The report specifically examines how a parent’s criminal record can effect “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.

In many instances, these effects are the indirect result of collateral consequences that limit a parent’s ability to find a job or pursue education or training; however, there are a number of notable collateral consequences that can have a direct and often severe impact on a child’s well-being. For example, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development authorizes Public Housing Authorities to exclude or evict entire families from subsidized housing on the basis of a single family member’s “criminal activity,” and, in handful of states, parents with felony drug convictions are permanently barred from receiving federally funded food stamps.

The scope of the problem is large both in terms of the number of families currently affected and in terms of the future social consequences. Although the report’s claim that “nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record,” may be an overstatement (the methodology used to arrive at that figure relies on a number of questionable assumptions), it is clear that about a third of all Americans have some sort of record. That number represents millions of parents and, in turn, millions of impacted children whose chance of success in adulthood may be diminished. Sadly, we can assume that a disproportionately large number of those children are black or Latino since their parents are more likely to have a criminal record than white parents.  Unless there is significant reform, we can expect to see the racial disparities that the justice system has created among adults of this generation reverberate well into the next.

To mitigate these outcomes, the report advocates for a “two generation approach” to reform that “combats intergenerational poverty by boosting education, health, and well-being; economic supports; and social capital for parents and children.” The specific reforms proposed are largely aimed at easing the burdens on parents with criminal records by removing barriers to employment, housing, and education; broadening the availability of sealing and expungement (including automatic expungement of low level offenses after a set period of time); and expanding re-entry services. The report also pushes for the adoption of policies that support family strength and stability in general terms, such as child support reform and the expansion of parent training and support programs like those funded by federal Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Demonstration grants.

You can find the full report, Removing Barriers to Opportunity for Parents With Criminal Records and Their Children: A Two-Generation Approach, at this link.

Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

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