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Parental imprisonment and child outcomes

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PhD project shows that children experiencing parental imprisonment have a higher risk of criminal outcomes than adolescents and adults.

Within the last three decades, imprisonment rates have increased significantly in most Western countries. As a consequence, more children are experiencing parental imprisonment. However, very little systematic knowledge exists about this group of children, both in Denmark and in the rest of Europe. Moreover, even less is known about the consequences of parental imprisonment on children’s life course. Most of the existing research on the relationship between parental imprisonment and child outcomes comes from the United States. However, with the highest imprisonment rate in the Western world, the United States is not representative. Research from countries with lower imprisonment rates and other welfare-state types is needed to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how parental imprisonment may affect the life course of children.

Using Danish register data, I investigate the prevalence of parental imprisonment, the social background of children of prisoners, the extent to which parental imprisonment affects children’s criminal and educational outcomes, and finally the mechanisms by which parental imprisonment might affect children. In this project “parental imprisonment” refers to any kind of custodial confinement of a parent in prisons, or in pre-trial detention, insofar as the parent is eventually sentenced to imprisonment.

Descriptive statistics show that about 6 per cent of the children born between 1980 and 1985 have experienced parental imprisonment at least once in their childhood (age 0-18). Furthermore, it is clear that this group of children come from families with few economic and educational resources. Logistic regression analyses demonstrate that children experiencing parental imprisonment have a higher likelihood of being registered for a criminal offence and of having poor educational outcomes compared to their peers with non-criminal parents. Children of imprisoned parents also have a higher risk of being convicted of property crime at ages 19-29 and juvenile delinquency at ages 15-20, both compared to their peers with non-criminal parents, but more importantly, also compared to peers with convicted but not imprisoned parents. Parental imprisonment thus affects the risk of property crime and juvenile delinquency over and above parental criminality and social background.

In contrast, both regression and propensity score matching analyses show that parental imprisonment does not affect children’s educational outcomes over and above parental criminality. Only the small group of children who experience the imprisonment of both parents are more likely to attain poorer educational qualifications than their peers with non-criminal parents; peers with convicted, but not imprisoned parents; and peers who have only experienced one parent’s imprisonment.

The conclusion is that the variation in children’s criminal and educational outcomes is to a large extent attributable to initial selection in terms of socio-economic background and parental criminality, but that parental imprisonment does make a difference for certain outcomes (property crime and juvenile delinquency) and sub-groups (children experiencing the imprisonment of both parents). Parental imprisonment increases the odds of being convicted of property crime (age 19-29) and juvenile delinquency (age 15-20), and children experiencing the imprisonment of both parents obtain less years of education than their peers.

The PhD project is an extension of previous research in several ways. First, using Danish data, it provides new evidence for the scarce body of knowledge on children of prisoners in Europe. Particularly, the analyses of the relationship between parental imprisonment and educational attainment using more advanced statistical methods have not previously been conducted in Europe. Second, the findings in this dissertation are based on Danish administrative register data on six cohorts born between 1980 and 1986. The sample is thus not plagued with problems related to small sample size and consequently the findings should be more valid than many of the previous studies. Moreover, the register data makes it possible to determine the actual percentage of children from these cohorts who have experienced parental imprisonment. Such an accurate description has not previously been provided by any study. Finally, the project illuminates a part of the “black box” through which parental imprisonment operates, by showing that out-of-home placement mediates the effect of parental imprisonment. In considering several outcomes and investigating whether out-of-home placement is a mediator, this PhD project offers a comprehensive account of the link between parental imprisonment and offspring offenses.

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