Sensible criminal justice: Strengthening parent-child relationships

By Hannah McDermott

Last week, President Obama spoke to the NAACP the extraordinary rate of incarceration in the United States compared to other nations; 2.2 million individuals incarcerated, he said.  He addressed the racial disparities in our criminal justice system and long sentences imposed by mandatory minimum laws.

President Obama addressed, rightly, that mass incarceration is not an issue that can be tackled in a vacuum.   Mass incarceration occurs within the context of poverty and inadequate infrastructure to support communities struggling with poverty, lack of opportunity and community violence. Further, he addressed the barriers that face the formerly incarcerated as they re-enter the community:  disenfranchisement, difficulty finding work and the prison system’s orientation towards punishment over rehabilitation. Obama highlighted the steps he would take to address these issues, including: reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which disproportionately impacts people of color, commuting the sentences of dozens of non-violent drug offenders, with plans to commute even more sentences and a commitment to sentencing reform.  He spoke about plans to invest in community infrastructure, like Pre-K programs, increase oversight, and review of abusive prison conditions and policies, including solitary confinement.

These reforms are necessary and long overdue.  It is refreshing to hear the president address the long-held concerns of advocates, communities and families.  However these reforms will take time to implement and the “dozens” of non-violent drug sentences President Obama has and will commute are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of individuals whose incarceration was part of the cycle of addiction and poverty.

However, in addition to the critical reforms enumerated by President Obama, the broad impact of incarceration on children and families must be addressed.  Across the United States, one third of children will become adults, reaching the age of 18, while a parent is incarcerated (Glaze & Maraschak, 2008).  Although the impact of parental incarceration on children is relatively unstudied, evidence suggests that the children of incarcerated parents are at risk for poor psychosocial outcomes, including substance abuse, externalizing and internalizing behavior and poor academic performance. It is difficult to parse whether these outcomes are associated with parental incarceration per se rather than with the other challenges that these children are likely to face, including poverty, exposure to violence, trauma, and home-environment instability (Akesson, Smyth, Mandell, Doan, Donina & Hoven, 2012)

However, research has found that both community support and the parent-child bond can serve as protective factors against these risks (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000; Mackintosh, Myers, & Kennon, 2006).  Yet the structure of mass incarceration puts up barriers to the efficacy of these tools.   High rates of incarceration in poor communities of color weaken the strong community networks that might help children develop resiliency in the face of hardship. The practice of incarcerating adults, in rural areas many hours’ drive away from their families and communities makes maintaining relationships between the incarcerated and their families difficult.  The majority of incarcerated parents are held in facilities at least 100 miles from their home (Mumola, 2000). Over 50% of women incarcerated in state prison report never having had a visit from their children and one in three report never having spoken by phone with their child(ren) (The Sentencing Project, 2007).  Further, these parents face the possibility of losing parental rights, should their children be in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.  Over 60% of incarcerated mothers are sentenced to serve more than 24 months (The Sentencing Project, 2007).

Strong communities and strong bonds between parents and children are an untapped source of resiliency for the children of incarcerated parents.  We should invest in these relationships: supporting prison-visiting programs, developing and funding programs that encourage parent-child contact by mail (eg. The Women’s Storybook Project), and visit coaching to help visits be as productive and healing as possible.  Not only will children benefit, but their parents will, too.  Connections with their children may not only ease the sentence they must serve, but may also soften the notoriously difficult transition from prison back into the community.

President Obama, there is another tool in your toolbox to fight mass incarceration and its impact on communities and individuals.  Let’s take a look at parent-child relationships.

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