2.7 Million Children Under the Age of 18 Have a Parent in Prison or Jail - We Need Criminal Justice Reform Now

Human Rights

Reform criminal justice now. That was the core message US Attorney General Eric Holder delivered recently to the American Bar Associationand our nation. He declared that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason" and at great public expense.

Seeking to cut imprisonment rates and spending while protecting the public, Holder has directed the Justice Department to charge non-violent drug offenders with less severe federal crimes. Beyond reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and shortening prison times for lower-level drug felons, while reserving more serious charges and longer sentences for violent and higher-ranking drug traffickers, the Justice Department supports sentencing more people to rehab than (re-)imprisonment for crimes rooted in drug abuse and addiction.

Those reforms, among others, according to Holder, will do more for "the lives being harmed, not helped, by a criminal justice system that doesn't serve the American people as well as it should". There is one group of Americans that couldn't agree more – the children of the imprisoned.

Most prisoners are parents of children under 18 years of age. Two-thirds of incarcerated parents are nonviolent offenders, often locked up on minor drug-related charges. They make up the majority of parents in prison, and they and their children are the ones criminal justice reform will most affect.

By the best estimates, about 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent in prison or jail. According to sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Petit (pdf), that means one in 28 kids in the United States (as of 2010) has a mother or father, or both, in lockup – a dramatic change from the one in 125 rate a quarter of a century ago. Approximately one in nine black children have an imprisoned parent, four times as many 25 years ago. Furthermore, 14,000 or more children of the imprisoned annually enter foster care, while an undetermined number enter juvenile detention and adult prisons.

The losses children experience from of an imprisoned parent are many (pdf). While imprisoned, governments deprive parents of consistent contact and engagement with their children. Their kids rarely visit them in prison because these parents are often isolated at great distances from their communities. A sad example is the recent decision of the federal bureau of prisons to relocate their inmates to prisons scattered around the country, making visitation impossible for many.

Even phone calls become difficult and rare because of exorbitant telephone rates. Some imprisoned parents with long sentences may even permanently lose their parental rights.

The lack of parental contact and engagement during imprisonment hurts kids of the incarcerated, psychologically and socially. Many kids of the imprisoned are teased and taunted, shamed and stigmatized for the actions and absences of their parents. This is true even in communities with high rates of parental imprisonment.

Naturally, kids of the imprisoned try to hide the trauma of parental arrests, convictions, and incarceration. Some mask it. Others act out, resulting in school suspensions, dropouts, criminal arrests, and juvenile imprisonment, which maintains the "school-to-prison pipeline" that Attorney General Holder mentioned in his speech.

The children of the formerly incarcerated suffer, too. A collection of federal and state laws, for instance, bar mothers and fathers with drug felony convictions from federal social welfare programs, such as cash assistance for the poor, food stamps, vouchers for rental housing, apartments in public housing, and subsidized student loans for college educations. Some states prevent parents with felony convictions from voting and ban them from obtaining employment licenses for jobs like truck drivers and barbers.

These and other collateral consequences, as Attorney General Holder knows and his Justice Department is trying to change, weaken families after their reunification with the formerly incarcerated, and hinder parents from being better guardians and role models of their children. The post-prison sanctions also create what sociologist Christopher Wildeman suggests is "a new mechanism through which race and class inequality grow".

Philanthropic organizations like the Annie E Casey Foundation in Baltimore and community improvement organizations such as Foreverfamily in Atlanta stand up for and with the children of imprisoned parents: they are part of a nascent but growing movement toward change. Their compassion and courage for kids of the imprisoned is commendable. But the children of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated need more – not just private charity, but public support, too.

Transforming the lives of the children of the imprisoned requires that far more Americans learn of, talk about, and act for the kids who are most likely the truly disadvantaged of all our nation's children. Making the issue a common subject of public conversation will aid this transformation. And popular culture can be a powerful tool.

Earlier this summer, for example, the Children's Television Workshop, producers of "Sesame Street", introduced Alex, a Muppet with an imprisoned father. Schools, counselors, and therapists received copies of the video. Its existence and media coverage pushed the issue briefly into the spotlight. Portions of the video and facts about the issue should become part of regular "Sesame Street" programming and other popular shows about children and families.

We can also aid the transformation by giving voice to and advocating for children of the imprisoned. Criminal justice and welfare policymakers need to feel pressure that the needs of kids of the imprisoned are important. Celebrities, who during their youth and teens had imprisoned parents, can help, speaking up – as Laura Kaeppeler, a former Miss America, has done.

The "war on drugs" and mass incarceration policies have failed our criminal justice system at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of ruined lives. They have also created a disastrous de facto child welfare policy, harming those Americans least able to advocate for themselves, our children, and undermining families and communities. Let's make America's kids a top priority of Holder's reforms.

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