A new report says Kentucky has the highest percentage of children in the nation who have had a parent in jail – a situation so detrimental that a child advocate compares it to abuse

LOUISVILLE – A new report says Kentucky has the highest percentage of children in the nation who have had a parent in jail – a situation so detrimental that a child advocate compares it to abuse.

Citing a report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville reports that 13 percent of Kentucky children – 135,000 – reported in 2011-12 that they had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. That percentage is nearly double the national average of 7 percent.

Nationwide, about 5.1 million children have experienced parental incarceration, according to the report, “A Shared Sentence,” co-released by Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization. Indiana had 177,000 such children, the report says.

Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said parental incarceration exacts a devastating toll on families and society at large by creating an “unstable environment” for children, with the effects being long-lasting.

“Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce,” the report said.

Brooks hopes the report’s findings bring attention to the issue.

“Policy debates about incarceration rarely focus on the impact on children,” Brooks said. “You can’t ignore a 13-percent-of-the-population problem.”

The report uses data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, the latest available.

Since that survey took place, Kentucky has enacted numerous criminal justice reforms in order to curb the growth of a prison population that had been increasing four times faster than the national average. The reforms included an expansion of alternative sentencing for nonviolent crimes.

John Tilley, secretary of the Kentucky Justice Cabinet who helped push those changes as a legislator, said they have helped level off the increase that some predicted could have reached 27,000 by 2015.

Still, the prison population in the state has continued to grow.

State jails and prisons held about 22,700 people in April, compared to 21,500 in April 2012.

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