Children in Crisis

What Happens When a Parent Goes to Prison?

When a suspect is put in the back of a police car or a judge lowers her gavel to pronounce a sentence, the perpetrator may not be the only one about to lose something. In many cases there is a child back home who is being deprived of his or her parent.(a)


Joseph Murray
University of Cambridge

Studies Reviewed
Research Methods

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 2.3% of American children and 6.7% of African American children currently have a parent in prison, while more have a parent in local jail or have had a parent incarcerated in the past. Though some of these children had little involvement with their parent to begin with, others face the trauma of being separated from one of their primary caregivers.(b) In addition to the tangible and intangible challenges this separation entails – emotional stress, changes to living situation, loss of family income – children who have an incarcerated parent can face stigma and societal expectations that they will follow in their parent’s missteps. It’s easy to imagine that losing a parent to the prison system could have a major impact on a child.

A new study1 published in the journal Criminology by Joseph Murray, Rolf Loeber, and Dustin Pardini uses data from the multi-decade Pittsburgh Youth Study to examine how parental incarceration affects children.2 The analysis shows that boys who have a parent (mother or father) incarcerated at some point during their childhood are more likely to engage in criminal activity, in this study measured by acts of theft. These boys are more likely to steal than boys from similar backgrounds whose parents have not been incarcerated.(c) Interestingly, boys who have a parent arrested or convicted of a crime but not imprisoned are not more likely to steal, suggesting that the impact comes from having a parent incarcerated, not having a parent who is a criminal. While parental incarceration raises the likelihood of theft, it doesn’t increase other negative behaviors like marijuana use, poor school performance, or depression.

The finding that children whose parents are incarcerated are themselves more likely to engage in criminal behavior is supported by a number of other studies.3 Yet instead of accepting the old maxim, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as a foregone conclusion, researchers and advocates interested in breaking the cycle are trying to understand why children of incarcerated parents are at higher risk. Is there a genetic predisposition that passes from parent to child, or do the parents model antisocial behaviors that are picked up by their children? Maybe criminals can be good parents but lack the resources to help their children succeed? Or maybe a child’s increased risk isn’t rooted in his parent’s behavior but specifically in the parent’s incarceration and its aftereffects? Perhaps it all starts when the cruiser door closes or the judge’s gavel bangs down?

The Pittsburgh Youth Study provides a unique opportunity to examine these questions because it tracks a large number of boys over many years and offers a look at their lives both before and after their parent’s incarceration. For the boys in the study, an increase in theft clearly follows their parent’s imprisonment. As you can see in the graph, other boys to whom they were very similar before the incarceration do not see a spike in theft around the same time. Analysis shows that changes in the boys’ family and peer environments after parental incarceration – such as less parental supervision and closer association with delinquent peers – account for about half of the increase in theft among the boys. While this still leaves half of the effect unexplained, it suggests that imprisonment itself may be one of the main reasons parental criminal behavior is passed on to children.

With 1 in 100 American adults now incarcerated, the impact on the 1.7 million children they’ve left behind is cause for serious concern.(d) Even if incarceration is reducing crime today (a proposition that’s less certain than it seems), it may be sowing the seeds for problems in future generations.

Joseph Murray is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow and Senior Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the development of criminal tendencies over the life course and the childhood origins of antisocial behavior. He has a doctorate in criminology from the University of Cambridge.

The content of this article is based in part on a research brief published by Action for Prisoners’ Families, a British non-profit organization that advocates for the families of criminal offenders. Writing and editing support were provided by Diana Brazzell.


  1. Joseph Murray, Rolf Loeber, and Dustin Pardini (2012), “Parental involvement in the criminal justice system and the development of youth theft, depression, marijuana use, and poor academic performance,” Criminology, 50(1): 255-302. The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, an endowed charitable trust based in the UK. The Foundation aims to improve social well-being by funding research and innovation in education and social policy. The views expressed in this article and the associated study are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Nuffield Foundation.
  2. The Pittsburgh Youth Study tracked over 1,500 randomly selected boys from inner city Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, beginning in 1987 when they were between ages 7 and 13 and continuing for several years. The subjects' lives were followed through interviews and surveys with the boys, their parents/caretakers, and their teachers, as well as administrative data like criminal records. The current study analyzes data on a subset of 52 boys who had a parent incarcerated before their eighteenth birthday and a matched control group of 156 boys who never had a parent incarcerated.
  3. Joseph Murray, David P. Farrington, and Ivana Sekol (2012), “Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Psychological Bulletin, 138(2): 175-210. This meta-analysis pools the findings from 40 studies covering more than 7,000 children with incarcerated parents.

  • Research Objective: To measure the impact of parental criminal justice involvement on adolescent behavior.

  • Methods: Data was drawn from the Pittsburgh Youth Study, a longitudinal study of youth development and delinquency. The project tracked 1,517 randomly selected boys from inner city Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, beginning in 1987 when they were either in first grade (age 7), fourth grade (age 10), or seventh grade (age 13). Over the next 12 years, researchers conducted annual interviews and surveys with the boys, their parents/caretakers, and their teachers, and collected official criminal records for the boys.

  • Samples: This analysis focused on the youngest and oldest Pittsburgh Youth Study participants, those who were age 7 or age 13 at the start of the study. The treatment group was composed of 52 boys who had a parent incarcerated at some point between the start of the study and age 18. A control group of 156 boys who did not have a parent incarcerated during this time was selected using propensity score matching. Each member of the treatment group was matched with three control group subjects who had very similar behaviors, parents’ antisocial behaviors and criminal history, and family and peer environments in the year before the parental incarceration.

  • Analysis: The key behavioral outcomes were theft, marijuana use, depression, and poor school performance, and family and peer environments after parental incarceration were tested as potential mediating variables. Differences in behavior between the samples were tested using generalized estimating equations (GEEs). Changes in youth theft among the treatment group were also tested using a fixed-effects model.

  • Findings: Parental incarceration is associated with increased adolescent involvement in theft, even after controlling for child and parent behavior and family and peer environments before the incarceration. Changes in family and peer environments after parental incarceration account for about half of the increase in theft. Parental arrest or conviction without incarceration is not associated with increased theft, and parental incarceration is not associated with increased marijuana use, depression, or poor school performance.


  • (a) According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over half of prisoners have children under age 18.
  • (b) Among state prisoners, 42% of fathers and 61% of mothers were living with their children prior to incarceration.
  • (c) Former U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum faced heavy criticism in January after claiming that having a father in jail was still better for children than having two same-sex parents.
  • (d) Even the current Miss America was affected by parental incarceration – her father was incarcerated for a year and a half when she was a teenager. She has made the impact of imprisonment on children her main platform as pageant queen.