March 6, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Here’s a good article that adds to the mountain of literature on the seemingly countless ways in which public policy disserves children (PS Mag, 3/3/15). It’s about this country’s incarceration practices and how they damage not only inmates but their children as well. As I said, it’s a good article, but it could be much better, missing, as it does, much of the larger picture.
By now it’s common knowledge that the United States incarcerates more of its people than any country in the world. Some might assume that’s just on a percentage basis. After all, countries like China and India have populations many times larger than ours, so surely they jail greater numbers of people, if smaller percentages, right? No. Despite having less than one-fourth the number of people as the People’s Republic of China, we imprison more of ours than they do of theirs.
And of course a great many of our 2 million or so inmates have children. According to the article and the Pew Charitable Trusts, we have about 1.2 million inmates who are parents of about 2.7 million kids. That’s about one American child in 28 with a parent in prison.
And of course when I say “parent,” I mean “father.” About 90% of inmates are men and so at least that percentage are those with children. Anecdotally we see judges sometimes refusing to give a custodial sentence to women with children, but essentially never if the person to be sentenced is a man. So it may be that there are more than 90% of those inmates with children who are men.
And it turns out that having a father in prison has significant psychological impacts on children apart from the fact that he’s absent from their lives.
In a new book, Children of the Prison Boom, sociologists Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield describe the impact of parental imprisonment on children: an increase in poverty, homelessness, depression, anxiety, learning disorders, behavioral problems, and interpersonal aggression. Some argue that taking parents who have committed a crime out of the family might be good for children, but the data is in. It’s not.
[The authors] argue that even if we start to remedy mass incarceration—something we’re not doing—we will still have to deal with the consequences. They are, Wildeman and Wakefield say, “a lost generation now coming of age.”
Now no one is arguing that parenthood should be a get-out-of-jail-free card. And I hope that no one will start to make that argument in the future. But whether a person is a parent or not should be considered in sentencing if only for non-violent crimes. Put another way, possession of pot shouldn’t be an excuse to take a parent out of a child’s life. The consequences of doing so are many and dire and its effects on kids are some of the most important.
Wildeman, et al’s main point is how incarceration exacerbates racial and economic inequality in this country and that’s a worthwhile topic.
One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14.... For white children of the same age, the risk is one in thirty. For black children whose fathers didn’t finish high school, the odds are even greater: more than 50 percent have dads who were locked up by the time they turned 14....
Even well-educated black families are disproportionately affected by the incarceration boom. Wakefield and Wildeman found that black children with college-educated fathers are twice as likely to see them incarcerated as the children of white high-school dropouts.
Those are impressive and disconcerting figures. The authors are unquestionably correct that going to prison increases the effects of father-absence on the families they leave behind.
But there’s much more to it than the article acknowledges. Specifically, it overlooks the cycle in which fatherless children tend towards greater criminality than their peers with dads. That greater criminality lands them in prison, separating them from their own kids who are then fatherless (even if the dads were present otherwise) and who will grow up to continue the cycle.
That cycle can begin with a mother who marginalizes a father in his children’s lives; it can begin with a father who doesn’t care for his kids; or it can begin with the criminal justice system that is all too ready to put people, particularly men, particularly black men, behind bars.
Right now, about one-third of American children have little or no contact with their fathers. That’s a recipe for the disaster that’s unfolding before our eyes. Many things militate in favor of fatherlessness. The decline in marriage rates, the dramatic surge in out-of-wedlock childbearing, the overwhelming preference of family courts and state legislatures for sole or primary maternal custody and the refusal to enforce visitation rights are a few. Adoption laws, and the anti-father policies of child protective agencies also contribute.
And policies on sentencing for crime are yet another. Those policies dramatically overcriminalize relatively minor offenses, sending people to prison who don’t remotely need to be there. But let’s not forget that men are treated much more harshly than women in every phase of the criminal justice process. As researcher Sonja Starr and others have discovered, whether it’s arrest, charging, granting or withholding bail, plea bargaining, conviction or sentencing, males accused of criminal offenses are treated more harshly than are females. That’s one reason for the dramatic imbalance in our prison population.
It’s also another reason why children don’t have fathers in their lives.
As I said in a speech I gave last year, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that fatherlessness in America is public policy.
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