As the U.S. jail population has exploded, so, too, has the number of parents behind bars. As of 2007, 53 percent of inmates were parents of children younger than 18 years old, mostly fathers. If you’re an African American kid whose parent never got a high school diploma, there is a 50 percent chance you will see a parent in prison before you turn 14, according to Brookings Institute data.
Kids whose parents are in prison are not only missing emotional support. About half of these parents had been the primary providers of their children’s financial support before going to jail.
So Oregon has good reason to be looking at ways to keep parents out of jail. And after 11 years of trying, it’s found one that seems to serve its purpose of curbing the cycle of crime. An Oregon Department of Corrections study found that inmates who underwent parenting training while behind bars were 95 percent less likely than those in a control group to report criminal activity in the year after the training. They were also significantly less likely to be arrested again. Women who underwent parenting training were 59 percent less likely to be arrested a year later, while men were 27 percent less likely to be re-arrested.
Fathers who participated in the program were also significantly more likely to give their children positive reinforcement after being released. And parents were more likely to have regular family contact, which has been associated with lower rates of repeat offenses in many previous studies.
The study is part of an 11-year program in Oregon focused on the kids of incarcerated parents, who are five to six times more likely to end up behind bars than those without an incarcerated parent. Many states are seeking ways to deal with their growing prison populations, with a U.S. incarceration rate that eclipses that of every other country in the world. This is having a particular impact on the children of African American men who never completed high school. As Vox pointed out this week, 70 percent of black men born in 1975 who dropped out of high school have been to prison — a rate that increased continually starting in 1945. And many of them now have children who are at an age ripe to continue the cycle.