Jailed teens with incarcerated parents unlikely to find success without help

November 14, 2013

Young man in handcuffsANN ARBOR—Without intervention, jailed teens whose parents have a history of incarceration are doomed to struggle for the rest of their lives, a new study says.

Researchers examined the extent to which various risk factors experienced by youths in eight juvenile and adult correctional facilities in Michigan are related to having a parent who served time in jail. The median age at first arrest for the group was 13 and a majority were males and minorities.

The researchers analyzed 10 factors showing differences among low, medium and high rates of parents in prison.

Kids whose incarcerated parents abused drugs and had experience with public assistance and foster care, poor neighborhood quality and instability, and stigma were most affected. Most youths in this cluster grew up without both biological parents, says Rosemary Sarri, professor emerita at the U-M Institute for Social Research and School of Social Work.

Most youths are likely to have troubled and unsuccessful lives unless there is significant intervention. Rosemary Sarri

Although the overwhelming majority of these teens lived in low-income, single-parent households, those with incarcerated parents fared more poorly in terms of “negative life events” and overall quality of life than those without this disadvantage.

About 53 percent of the teens surveyed had children. Most teen fathers said they expected to have little future contact with their children, preventing them from being a positive influence in their lives.

The researchers say intervention is needed to help teens deal with time behind bars and its consequences more effectively.

“Most youths are likely to have troubled and unsuccessful lives unless there is significant intervention to provide them with safe and supportive living conditions, substantial education, viable employment options and adequate housing,” Sarri said.

The findings appear in the current issue of the Journal of Poverty. Co-authors included Elizabeth Stoffregen of ISR and Irene Ng of National University of Singapore.


Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world’s largest digital social science data archive. For more information, visit the ISR website at www.isr.umich.edu.