When prisoners are parents, children often pay a cost.
Mass incarceration has been hell on children. That’s one of the least discussed of the many reasons for stepping away from locking up Americans in huge numbers.
One evening last week, the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest hosted an informal discussion of imprisonment’s impact on children and families. It was held at the FareStart Restaurant in downtown Seattle, where the staff consists of people who are getting another start in life, often after having been homeless.
FareStart exists because it’s wasteful and wrong to throw people away. And we’d all be better off if its philosophy became more common, including in the criminal-justice system. Thankfully, we are finally moving in that direction as people in and out of the system see the many ways an overreliance on jails and prisons hurts everyone.
The U.S. spends $80 billion a year to keep 2.2 million people locked up. This year, both President Obama and the politically opposite Koch brothers launched initiatives to roll back the historic levels of incarceration of the past several decades.
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Christopher Wildeman, Cornell University professor and author of “Children of the Prison Boom,” said high rates of imprisonment increase childhood homelessness and worsen racial and class inequality, and send more kids into the child-welfare system.
The proportion of kids born in 1978 who could expect a parent to be imprisoned was about one in eight for black children and one in 60 for white children.
For the 1990 birth cohort, he said one in four African-American children could expect a parent to be imprisoned versus fewer than two out of 50 for white children.
Race, class and neighborhood all influence who is likely to be affected by the imprisonment of a parent. Wildeman said that for children born in 1990 whose fathers dropped out of high school and are black, 50.5 percent would have a father imprisoned, whereas for white, college-educated families, it would be 0.9 percent.
He looked at effects of paternal incarceration in Denmark after that country took offenses for which people would have gotten relatively short periods of incarceration and changed the penalties to relatively long periods of community service. The risk of foster-care placement was cut in half and the risk of a child later having a conviction dropped by 40 percent.
Nearly all the research on the impact of an incarcerated parent has focused on men, a considerable oversight.
Lillian Hewko of the Washington Defender Association’s Incarcerated Parents Project, said 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers.
She said it would be better to spend less on locking people up and more on getting at the root causes of their problems. She mentioned drugs as an example, saying that given the challenges some of the people she helps must deal with, it’s not surprising that some self-medicate. They use street drugs and may wind up in jail, while middle-class people under stress can go to their doctor and get a prescription for something legal.
Officials in King County are turning more of their focus to addressing root causes.
You may have seen The Times op-ed piece King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg wrote last week about a meeting with prosecutors from around the U.S. at the invitation of singer John Legend to talk about criminal-justice-system reform.
Satterberg told the gathering in New York about several Seattle and King County initiatives to keep people out of the criminal-justice system and instead address their needs, whether they stem from poverty, mental illness or drug use. That’s happening because it’s the smart thing for the community and the individuals.
And in a couple weeks, King County residents will have a chance to vote on the Best Starts for Kids levy, which offers a broad range of interventions to help more young people reach their potential and avoid paths to prison in the first place.
We may really be on our way to ending the madness.