For The Children Weekly Column

Incarceration Panel Highlights Impact on Children

November 6, 2023




Contact: Joe Dorman, CEO – Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy

Telephone: (405) 833-1117


OKLAHOMA CITY – I attended a nonprofit conference Monday hosted by the Sarkeys Foundation. While there, I served on a panel which delved into the issues dealing with incarceration.

Some might ask why a child advocate would be invited to such a conversation, but the truth is that there are far more hurt by locking people up – justly or otherwise – when it comes to a sentence behind bars.

Republicans and Democrats in Oklahoma have joined forces to reduce the levels of incarceration and shift to alternative forms of punishment, saving the state significant dollars and improving opportunities for Oklahoma families to remain together.

Oklahoma at one point had an incarceration rate of 993 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that we locked up a higher percentage of our people than any democracy on Earth.

In 2018, Oklahoma instituted a new parole policy that streamlined the process and made inmates who met certain criteria – like serving specified portions of their sentences – eligible for parole without board hearings. A 2017 legislative report projected the new policy would reduce the number of incarcerated people by 3,750. State Question 780 also reduced the prison population by reducing the number of people sent to prison in the first place. Further sentencing reforms passed by lawmakers and signed into law by the governor also helped reduce the numbers even further.

Here is where a child advocate comes in on this topic. A study on long-term trauma experienced by young people called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, showed that Oklahoma is the worst state in the nation for children who have endured four or more childhood ACEs. Among the ACEs is having a family member who is in prison. Others include:

  • Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse.
  • Physical or emotional neglect.
  • Separation or divorce.
  • A family member with mental illness.
  • A family member addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  • Witnessing a parent being abused.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, nearly half (47%) of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prison across America are parents of minor children, and about 1-in-5 (19%) of those children are age 4 or younger. Incarceration not only punishes offenders, but their children will also suffer.

When the child experiences such trauma, the natural reaction is often to become more emotional, therefore leading to issues at school or home. A study from Florida State University concluded that even if parental incarceration does not itself cause harm to children, they may be at substantial risk of poor outcomes across multiple points during adolescence and into adulthood.

Among the poor outcomes are the potential for offending, addiction and mental illness, poor academic performance, and difficulty securing and retaining gainful employment. The study found parental incarceration increases the expected number of different crimes that a young adult commits by 26 percent, setting up a repeating of the cycle.

Early interventions help. Wraparound services significantly reduce ACEs and help lower incarceration rates. Prevention includes ensuring Oklahomans receive a high school diploma and have access to jobs which can support families. It also involves ensuring access to health care is available and affordable, along with counseling services to help reduce stress so it does not transfer to the family.

I appreciate Sarkeys Foundation for shedding light on this topic. Together, we can work to invest in helping our neighbors and reduce this trauma.