A growing percentage of New Jersey children have had a parent or guardian behind bars at some point in their lives.

Judges Gavel
Kuzma, ThinkStock

According to state-by-state figures from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group, 5 percent of children in New Jersey (88,000) fall into this category. That's compared to 3 percent of the state's youth population (65,000) in 2011-2012.

The new numbers are an update to a 2016 report from the foundation, which said the incarceration of a parent can have the same impact on a child's well-being as domestic violence or abuse.

Nationwide, according to the update, an additional 636,000 children have experienced losing a parent to prison or jail.

Mary Coogan, vice president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said the state's increasing percentage is "something to keep an eye on," given the potential negative impacts of an incarcerated parent or guardian.

"For example, the parent who becomes incarcerated could be the primary wage earner, so that has an immediate impact on the income available to the family in terms of food, family and shelter," Coogan said. "You're also losing just the emotional support of that parent."

Coogan added seeing a parent in jail — and dealing with metal detectors and security guards in the process — could be devastating for certain children.

According to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the location of one's family is among a list of factors considered when choosing where a convicted criminal will serve time, as long as the issue is brought up by the individual. An inmate can also submit a transfer request once they've served a problem-free six months.

In January, a "children and family" environment was unveiled at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, in order to make a child's experience "as normal as possible," the NJDOC said.

Coogan said she's interested in learning whether New Jersey's percentage decreases in the coming years due to bail reform measures implemented in January. Under the law, courts determine whether a defendant should be released before trial by assessing their risk of committing another crime or failing to appear at a later date.

"To the extent that we are not needlessly holding people in jail while their charges are pending, they are back with their family and you won't have that disruption," she said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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