What’s children’s health got to do with criminal justice reform?

Much of the recent discourse on criminal justice reform centers around incarcerated individuals themselves and the crimes that put them in prison. The impact of imprisonment on inmates’ families, however, often flies under the radar. Dr. Nia Heard-Garris of Northwestern University and her team recently took a closer look.

In their study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics last month, Heard-Garris et. al. use a survey to determine the effects of mother and/or father incarceration on adolescent health. They find associations between parent incarceration and forgone medical care and prescription drug abuse. Since caregiving responsibilities are likely to shift when a parent begins a prison sentence, these correlations make sense. Disruptions in what used to be regular doctors’ appointments become the new normal. Mother incarceration, specifically, correlates with a higher number of emergency department visits by her child(ren). This is a problem as emergency rooms aren’t meant to be sites for primary care. It also could indicate children of incarcerated mothers (or their new caretakers) are too often waiting until their ailments become absolutely urgent before seeking care. Father incarceration, on the other hand, correlates with illicit injected drug use by his child(ren).

Given the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and nearly 60% of incarcerated adults in the U.S. are parents to minors, these findings are extremely significant. Notably, Heard-Garris et. al. limited the definition of parents in their study to biological father and mother, suggesting that the impact may be even greater if imprisonment of any primary caregiver were studied.

The study highlights how problems of the criminal justice system extend beyond just convicted felons. Furthermore, young black adults in the survey experienced disproportionate rates of parent incarceration, raising concerns about the community experience of parent incarceration (in addition to the individual impacts the study evaluated). For example, what does it mean for a child to experience parent incarceration alongside many his friends also experiencing parent incarceration? The authors’ research underscores the importance of considering the children of convicts amidst critical conversations on criminal justice reform.