Almost Half of U.S. Kids Live With an Adult With a Criminal History

A study by the University of Michigan shows that four in every ten children are raised in a household where one parent or a residing adult has either been charged with a crime or spent time in prison. 

According to Michael Mueller-Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research, prior efforts to get to the depth of the problem of crime in American households have been limited by the unavailability of reliable data. 

Unavailability of Data

Data on crime collected by the federal government does not cover arrests or events that involve charges that do not result in incarceration. Also, it does not track intergenerational crime spillovers beyond the nuclear family. Since most researchers do not have access to data about the number of children living with an adult involved in the criminal justice system, they are unable to estimate how many students live with incarcerated parents. 

It is troubling that almost half of American children have had intergenerational crime exposure, which points to a failure of the American justice system and public policy. Unfortunately, the damage is so extensive that it is too deeply ingrained in modern culture to be instantly resolved. Even if America were to overhaul its justice system, Americans would still have to live with the effects of the damage on current and future generations.

Overcoming Data Limitation

This study is the first where the researchers have overcome the data limitation. To overcome the limitation, the researchers relied on data from multiple government agencies, including the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System, the US Census Bureau, and the Treasury Department. 

Besides the high rate of intergenerational exposure to crime, the researchers also found that the exposure varies with demographics. According to the study, over 60 percent of children from minority groups, specifically black and native American populations, and children born in households with less than the median income have twice the rate of intergenerational exposure to crime compared to white children. 

“The circumstances under which a child grows up directly impact the child’s life outcomes,” says criminal defense attorney Brian Leifert. According to Brittany Streets, one of the researchers in this study, it is unfortunate and alarming that the modal experience for minority children is indirect exposure to the criminal justice system. This exposure almost always leads to negative outcomes such as poor academic performance, cognitive difficulty, teen crime, teen fertility, and higher chances of the child dying before celebrating their 18th birthday. These results are confirmed even after controlling for a range of variables, including household income, place of birth, age, gender, and race.

Flawed Justice System

These findings explain why the number of incarcerated minority populations is disproportionately higher than whites. According to The Sentencing Project, African American incarceration rates are almost five times that of whites, and one in every 81 black adults is serving time in state prison.  

The expansive prevalence of minority children’s exposure to crime in their homes puts them at significant risk of a vicious cycle of crime. 

These findings also provide evidence that the justice system plays a significant role in propagating disparities in economic inequality across racial lines. Also, it should be a wake-up call for policymakers to start creating long-term policies that can help fix the justice system no matter how long it takes to see results.