Breaking the Generational Curse of Incarceration

September 8, 2016

By Lena Robinson

While the topic of incarceration and reentry is most often focused on the individual who is serving time or being released, the impact of incarceration is not limited to the individual. Over half of the 2.3 million inmates in the United States are parents of children under age 18. For the one in 28 children in the United States with a parent behind bars, this incarcerated person is a mother or father.

A recently published report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation outlines the social, economic, and emotional impacts on children with incarcerated parents and suggests several evidence-based investments and interventions to address these overwhelmingly adverse effects. For example, stigma and shame are often invisible but nonetheless significant burdens these children carry, especially younger children. To help them understand and face these emotional burdens, Sesame Street recently added a new character named Alex whose father is incarcerated.

Regardless of how we feel about incarceration as a method of punishment for crime, it is important to calculate the compound effect it has on future generations and the broader community. There are many neighborhoods where more money is spent incarcerating young people than on preschool, public education, and economic development to create jobs and opportunities. A spatial data visualization report written by Columbia University shows the concentration of criminal justice investment of a million dollars for single blocks in some U.S. cities.

Reentry is a community development opportunity. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report, “The high-poverty neighborhoods that are home to many kids and families dealing with incarceration lack quality affordable housing, access to jobs, good schools and key resources.” The lack of investment in these core factors for economic and social success results in neighborhoods that are structurally impaired by the intergenerational disadvantage of incarceration and poverty.

The good news is every sector–public, private and philanthropic–can support the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated persons. It goes beyond the critical investments and financial support of the programs and organizations working directly with this population.

On a personal level, anyone can challenge his or her own negative perception of someone with a criminal record and be reminded that many people deserve a second chance. In so doing, we as a society can prevent future generational losses represented as poverty, economic stagnation and social isolation and instead reap the positive dividends of economic mobility and cultural richness that define America.

What can we do?

Reentry Solutions: People, Programs and Policy will provide a forum to learn more about the work being done and what remains for effectively reintegrating men and women back into communities and families. In addition to the more traditional interventions such as housing, workforce development and health, attendees will learn about efforts to dampen the negative consequences on children, create resilient community conditions that support reentry, and, most importantly, be inspired by firsthand testimony of men and women who are working to break the generational curse of incarceration. Join us to be part of the solution!

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.