Parental incarceration increases risk for juvenile delinquency – particularly for Latinx youth

Parental incarceration increases risk for juvenile delinquency – particularly for Latinx youth

Sensation seeking, exposure to violence, and parent-child relationship quality were linked to later delinquency among Puerto Rican youth and may be useful targets for prevention programs within this population. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2020, Vol. 44, No. 2, 143–156

Parental Incarceration During Childhood and Later Delinquent Outcomes Among Puerto Rican Adolescents and Young Adults in Two Contexts.


Amanda NeMoyer, Massachusetts General Hospital; Harvard Medical School
Ye Wang, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
Kiara Alvarez, Massachusetts General Hospital; Harvard Medical School
Glorisa Canino, University of Puerto Rico
Cristiane S. Duarte, Columbia University; Irving Medical Center/New York State Psychiatric Institute
Hector Bird, Columbia University; Irving Medical Center/New York State Psychiatric Institute
Margarita Alegría, Massachusetts General Hospital; Harvard Medical School


Objective: Childhood parental incarceration has been linked to increased rates of delinquency and arrest during adolescence and young adulthood; however, previous research has focused on White and/or Black samples rather than Latinx youth. We examined relationships between childhood parental incarceration and later delinquency and arrest among Puerto Rican youth living in Puerto Rico (majority context) and the mainland United States (minority context). Hypotheses: We expected that childhood parental incarceration would be significantly linked to delinquent behavior and arrest. In line with acculturation theory, we hypothesized that residence (proxy for minority status) would be significantly related to delinquent outcomes and that an interaction effect would emerge between parental incarceration and residence. Method: Longitudinal data from the Boricua Youth Study were examined for 1,294 Puerto Rican youth from the South Bronx, NY (minority context) and greater San Juan, PR (majority context). We conducted a series of negative binomial and logistic regressions to determine the effects of parental incarceration and residence in childhood on self-reported delinquent behavior and arrest in adolescence and young adulthood, while also examining factors previously linked to delinquency in Puerto Rican youth. Results: Childhood parental incarceration and South Bronx residence were both linked to delinquent behavior but not arrest, even when simultaneously examining several individual, diagnostic, environment/social, and family factors reported in childhood. However, we did not observe an interaction effect between parental incarceration and residence for either outcome. Conclusions: Findings suggest that Puerto Rican youth with histories of parental incarceration could benefit from targeted programs aimed at preventing future delinquency.


juvenile justice, parental incarceration, youth delinquency, BYS, Puerto Rican

Summary of the Research

“An estimated 54% of the nation’s incarcerated population are parents, and more than five million children in the United States have experienced parental incarceration. This experience is particularly prevalent among youth of color, as African American and Latinx youth are significantly more likely than White youth to have a parent in jail or prison. Children with this experience regularly demonstrate negative outcomes in several behavioral, emotional, and health-related domains compared to youth with no such history. In particular, they appear to be at increased risk for delinquent behavior and arrest. However, prior studies investigating delinquent outcomes among youth with incarcerated parents have often failed to examine these relationships among Latinx youth. Latinx youth frequently demonstrate distinct risk factors (e.g., acculturative stress, perceived discrimination, family conflict) and protective factors (e.g., enculturation, familism, parenting strategies) for delinquency compared to youth from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Of note, some of these factors may largely only be applicable to Latinx youth (e.g., acculturation, enculturation, cultural stress), whereas others may apply to youth more broadly, but seem to have a comparatively stronger impact on Latinx youth (e.g., family conflict). Given the likelihood for Latinx youth to have an incarcerated parent and their distinct risk factors for delinquency, investigation into the potential effects of this experience among Latinx youth is warranted” (p. 144).

“[W]e use the term ‘Latinx’ as a gender-neutral term to be inclusive of individuals whose identities may not align with a gender binary that could be inferred from the use of ‘Latino/a.’ Recognizing that, as a descriptor, ‘Latinx’ encompasses multiple subgroups representing different countries and cultures of origin, this study aims to contribute to addressing the existing research gap by investigating the relation between childhood parental incarceration and delinquent outcomes among a sample of Puerto Ricans, part of the second largest Latinx subgroup in the United States. Further, we examine this relation in two contexts— one in which Puerto Ricans are the majority population (i.e., in Puerto Rico) and one in which they represent a minority group (i.e., in the United States)—to better understand the ways in which stressors that accompany minority status might affect the development of delinquent behaviors” (p. 144).

To this point, no studies have examined the relation between childhood parental incarceration and delinquent outcomes in young adulthood among Puerto Rican youth in both a minority and majority context. This study aimed to address this gap, while also examining other important factors that have been linked to delinquency. Based on prior research connecting childhood parental incarceration to delinquent outcomes, combined with the importance of family relationships in a Puerto Rican cultural context, we expected that a history of childhood parental incarceration would be significantly linked to delinquent behavior and arrest in later adolescence and young adulthood in our sample of Puerto Rican youth. Additionally, in line with acculturation theory and reflecting the stressors (e.g., prejudice, isolation) that stateside Puerto Ricans often experience as members of a minority group, we hypothesized that residence (as proxy for minority status) would be significantly related to reports of arrests and delinquent behavior in adolescence and young adulthood, such that Puerto Rican youth in the South Bronx (minority status) would have increased odds of delinquent behavior and arrest compared to Puerto Rican youth in Puerto Rico (majority status)” (p. 146).

“Similarly, given the more limited supporting networks (e.g., extended family, neighbors) for youth living in a minority context, we expected that Puerto Rican youth in the South Bronx, who were part of a minority group, would experience more adverse outcomes as a result of the family disruption associated with an incarcerated parent compared to similar youth from Puerto Rico, who were part of the majority ethnic group. Thus, we hypothesized that an interaction effect would emerge between parental incarceration and residence in their relation to both delinquent outcomes. Finally, though we focused on main and interaction effects of parental incarceration and site/minority status on delinquent outcomes, we also examined several individual (i.e., sensation seeking, delinquent behavior, acculturation, cultural stress), diagnostic (i.e., internalizing and externalizing disorder), family (i.e., parent’s use of coercive discipline, parent-child relationship quality) and environment/social factors (i.e., exposure to violence, stressful life events, peer delinquency, social support) that have been previously linked to delinquency among school-age Puerto Rican youth. We seek to explore whether these variables still demonstrate significant effects when they are included in a comprehensive model” (p. 146).

“Data were collected from participants in the Boricua Youth Study (BYS; Bird et al., 2006), a longitudinal study of children and caregivers of Puerto Rican descent in the South Bronx, NY (SBx) and the San Juan and Caguas metro area in Puerto Rico (PR). Researchers utilized a multistage probability sample design during participant recruitment. Randomly selected household clusters served as the primary sampling units and were first defined based on the 1990 Census and then adjusted for the 2000 Census results when they became available. Within the household clusters, targeted households were randomly selected. Youth participants were recruited between the ages of 5 and 13 and interviewed at three annual time points between 2000 and 2004 (Wave 1 through Wave 3); they were then contacted between 2013 and 2017 to complete a Wave 4 interview (82.8% retention rate, excluding ineligible individuals). Approximately 2.3% of the original Wave 1 sample (n = 58) was ineligible for Wave 4 interviews because of incarceration (n = 21; 0.8%) or death (n = 37; 1.5%); 4.7% of the original sample (n = 118) refused to be interviewed at Wave 4, and 8.6% of the original sample (n = 214) could not be located. Of note, most young adult participants from the PR subsample (91%) were still living in Puerto Rico at the time of their Wave 4 interview; fewer than five of the PR participants had moved to the South Bronx. Among the young adults from the SBx subsample, 86% were still living in or within 100 miles of the South Bronx (e.g., other parts of the Bronx or New York City); just seven SBx participants had moved to Puerto Rico” (p. 146).

“Findings suggest that both parental incarceration and South Bronx residence (minority status) were linked to self-reported delinquent behavior in later adolescence and young adulthood, even when controlling for several individual, environment/ social, and family factors. However, neither parental incarceration nor residence were associated with later arrest when other relevant variables were simultaneously examined” (p. 150).

“These findings diverge from previous studies of largely White and/or Black samples that found significant connections between parental incarceration and youths’ justice system involvement. However, our findings also align with extant research that identified links between parental incarceration and delinquent or antisocial behavior. Further, previous examination of this sample of Puerto Rican youth has suggested that gender, sensation seeking, and exposure to violence were each associated with delinquent behavior at Wave 3. This study provides further evidence of the lasting nature of these relationships, as they were still observed at Wave 4, even when controlling for other important factors. Importantly, the fact that initially significant connections between parental incarceration and delinquent outcomes were weakened—and sometimes made nonsignificant—with the addition of other relevant independent variables supports the idea that risk factors other than parental incarceration more meaningfully demonstrate a relationship with delinquent outcomes among Puerto Rican youth.” (p. 150-151).

Translating Research into Practice

“[T]hese findings may identify a population of Latinx youth with increased vulnerability for delinquent behavior (and potentially justice system involvement) in later adolescence and young adulthood: Puerto Rican boys living in areas where they are an ethnic minority who have histories of childhood parental incarceration, especially when that history exists in conjunction with increased sensation-seeking tendencies and high exposure to violence. In that same vein, these findings may also identify potential targets for intervention among youth with this experience (e.g., reducing sensation-seeking, providing additional support in highly violent communities, strengthening youths’ relationships with their parents/caregivers) that could be explored in future research. Additionally, professionals who conduct forensic assessments might consider childhood parental incarceration as a static risk factor for future delinquency within this population; however, they should do so within the context of a comprehensive, culturally competent examination of an individual’s static and dynamic risk and protective factors—in line with best practice. Larger proposed criminal justice reforms may also have implications for youth with justice-involved parents— for instance, utilizing more community-based alternatives to incarceration, reducing the length of prison sentences, and providing more support for family visitation, taken together, might better allow youth to maintain and strengthen relationships with parents and prevent negative outcomes associated with parental incarceration” (p. 152-153).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“[F]uture research should further explore the significant relations identified in the current study. Perhaps by using qualitative measures, investigators can more closely examine youth who do and do not engage in delinquent behavior and become justice-involved after experiencing parental incarceration to better identify the risk and protective factors that contribute to these differential outcomes. Additionally, studies might seek to develop intervention programs for youth with incarcerated parents targeting the risk factors described here (e.g., reducing sensation seeking, strengthening parent-child relationships, providing additional support for youth in highly violent communities) and evaluate the efficacy of such methods. Although the risk factors identified seem especially relevant for Puerto Rican youth, such programs may also be appropriate for young people from other racial/ethnic backgrounds; thus, evaluations of these programs might investigate whether effects vary by youth characteristics” (p. 153).

“Further investigation should also explore environment/social variables not included in our analysis, such as where youth live during a parent’s incarceration (e.g., with another parent, in foster care) and neighborhood safety and community cohesiveness/support, that might help to explain youths’ adjustment to a parent’s incarceration. Future research could investigate whether youth who experience the incarceration of other family members (e.g., siblings, aunts, or uncles) demonstrate similar outcomes to those observed among youth whose parents are incarcerated. Finally, given the heterogeneity of Latinx groups and the fact that this study focused only on young people with Puerto Rican heritage, additional studies might explore potential relationships between childhood parental incarceration and delinquent outcomes among youth with other Latinx backgrounds” (p. 153).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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