Mass incarceration and the kids left behind

Added April 28th, 2016 by Alicia Guevara Warren | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Alicia Guevara Warren

Losing a parent to incarceration can be very traumatic for children. Not understanding why a parent is gone and can’t come home, wondering why he or she might be far away, being frustrated because frequent visits might not be possible all while the other parent undergoes tremendous financial and emotional stress.

In Michigan at least 1 in 10 children has been impacted by parental incarceration. This is one of the highest rates in the country—only Indiana (11%) and Kentucky (13%) have higher percentages of children who have had a parent incarcerated. As a result of mass incarceration and the “tough on crime” movement many children and families have been left behind in communities without adequate support and resources.

According to a new KIDS COUNT report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities, more than 5 million children in the United States have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives, including 228,000 in Michigan. With the recent interest to reform corrections policies, the report’s recommendations emphasize that children’s needs must not continue to be overlooked.

Incarceration destabilizes a child’s life in many ways. It causes stress and can have long-term effects on a child’s well-being. The report points to the trauma of being separated from a parent that when combined with a lack of sympathy or supports can increase mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Losing a parent to incarceration can leave single mothers or grandparents with unexpected financial responsibilities—on top of the emotional strain—which can make it harder for the caretakers left behind to provide emotional support to the affected children.

Casey Incarceration Report_Michigan_Percent

Additionally, when fathers are incarcerated, the average family income drops by 22% leaving families unable to afford necessities, like food, utilities, rent and medical care for their children. The loss of income is only exacerbated by high court-related fines and fees, telephone calls, and costs to travel to visit since oftentimes the parent is incarcerated far away from home. The report cites research that found that if incarceration rates had not increased so significantly between 1980 and 2004, then the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by 20% rather than remain steady.

The report points to three broad goals with specific recommendations in each:

  • Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return;
  • Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment; and
  • Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.

Michigan has the opportunity to make changes through sentencing reforms to control the prison population, increased funding for prisoner education and training, support for “ban the box,” removing our 17-year-old children from the adult prison system, improved reentry support and by facilitating access for affected families to financial, legal, child care and housing assistance.

Bottom line: as discussions to reform the criminal justice system continue, the needs of children must be prioritized as systems make decisions about sentencing parents in order to minimize the impact that incarceration has on children. All kids should have a fair chance to thrive.

— Alicia Guevara Warren

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