Justice reform for the children (Capitol Update)

There was an informative interim study last week in the House Judiciary Committee about the impact of incarceration on the children of people who are sentenced to prison. The topic is an issue that has remained largely undiscussed during criminal justice reform efforts. These kids are victims of the actions of both their parent or parents and a system that unnecessarily incarcerates too many people. The study was requested by Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton.

Each year over 30,000 Oklahoma children have a parent in prison, according to information provided by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth. Of these children, less than ten percent are cared for through the Department of Human Services. The remaining ninety percent are cared for by friends or family who often are without knowledge of resources — if indeed resources are available — to help these kids cope with the loss of presence of their parent. As years go by, the numbers of affected children continue to multiply.

The Oklahoma Institute of Child Advocacy reported that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than other children to develop a substance use disorder as adults and nearly twice as likely to have diagnosable anxiety, according to new research from the Center for Child and Family Policy at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.  In addition, the study found that children whose parents were incarcerated are more likely to encounter significant hurdles transitioning into adulthood, including being charged with a felony (35 percent vs. 11.5 percent), dropping out of high school (25.5 percent vs. 5.0 percent), becoming a teenage parent (14.3 percent vs. 2.8 percent), experiencing financial strain (37.2 percent vs. 17.5 percent), and being socially isolated (24.5 percent vs. 9.4 percent).

These are sobering findings for Oklahomans struggling to overcome the political hurdles preventing us from dealing with over-incarceration. It would be difficult to isolate the percentage of poor educational outcomes, poverty, poor health outcomes and mental health problems for which this cohort of Oklahoma children and their progeny are responsible. But it is bound to be substantial. Hopefully, this information will inspire legislators to continue working to find the solutions required to heal our criminal justice system.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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