March 2, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The American Bar Association recently held its midyear meeting in Miami and, among other things, one of the topics was the United States’ incarceration rate and its potential effects on children. This report seems to indicate that speakers had a sincere and heartfelt desire to reform the criminal justice system in order to reduce incarceration rates and, in the process, put fewer parents in prison and more in the home with children (American Bar Association, March, 2017).
All of which is fine. I fully agree. After all, as this data make clear, almost every country in the world manages to get by with incarceration rates that are a small fraction of ours (National Academies Press, 2014). So, in 2012, the U.S. incarceration rate stood at 707 per 100,000 people, whereas, for example, Turkey’s was 188 per 100,000, Australia’s was 133 and the U.K.’s was 148. And, just so we’re clear, our rate in 2012 was by no means our highest. As recently as 2007, ours was around 770.
And of course, many of those in prison and jail are parents, a fact about which the ABA is concerned.
According to the American Bar Foundation, the United States has more people incarcerated per capita than any other country in the world and half of those imprisoned are parents.
At the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami, panelists on the Feb. 4 panel “Unintended Consequences of American Criminal Justice” discussed the impact of incarceration on the families of those in prison and agreed that criminal justice reform is needed.
There are about 3 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent or a parent who has recently been released, said panelist John Hagan, co-director of the ABF Center on Law and Globalization, explaining that tough-on-crime laws dating back to President Lyndon Johnson led to the mass incarceration of citizens.
As the graph in the National Academies Press article linked to shows, Hagan’s wrong about President Johnson. Very clearly, from 1925 to 1974, the incarceration rate in this country remained essentially unchanged at about 100 per 100,000. But then, with Nixon’s war on drugs (Hagan’s also wrong about who started the “War on Drugs”), the rate began to spike until, 40 years later, it was over seven times that. The Reagan and Clinton administrations each contributed mightily to the trend.
And with half of all inmates being parents, the ABA is right to express its concern that our stratospheric incarceration rates have consequences that, however unanticipated, are nevertheless dire.
Apparently the only parents the ABA considers deserving of mention are mothers.
Noting that more than two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers, Hagan said children of today’s “prison generation” struggle with educational achievement, healthcare access and insecurity related to economic security, among several other problems.
These children often suffer traumas, such as neglect and family dysfunction, leading to criminal involvement and a cycle of re-offenses, added Judge Bernice Donald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
By confining its concern to mothers, the ABA panel as much as admitted that it’s not particularly interested in the children of parents behind bars. Consider these basic facts about our prison population: there are about 2.3 million inmates, of whom about 9% are women. That’s about 214,000 female and about 2,092,000 male inmates. If 2/3s of all female inmates are mothers, and 50% of all inmates are parents, that means about 48%, or about 1,010,550, inmates are fathers.
Obviously then, if the ABA or anyone else is actually concerned about the effect our incarceration rates have on kids, they’d realize that the place to act is on male incarceration. Put simply, 142,000 incarcerated mothers (i.e. 2/3s of 214,000) have very little impact on the well-being of the whole population of U.S. kids. And when we consider that the great majority of those mothers well deserve the sentence they’re serving, no realistic reform of criminal sentencing laws aimed specifically at mothers will have an appreciable impact on child well-being.
Getting more men out of prison so they can be the best fathers they can be could, by contrast, have an impact. But the ABA chose to focus on the aspect of the problem, reform of which, would do the least to ameliorate an admittedly bad situation.
Few will be surprised that a group of lawyers (a) ignored fathers and their value to children and (b) came out in favor of reduced sentencing for female offenders despite the fact that (c) doing so would have a negligible impact on the problem they were supposedly addressing.
After all, family lawyers are among the last groups to oppose shared parenting bills when they come before state legislatures. Indeed, no family law section of a state bar association has ever lent its support to such a bill. Now, of course, those family lawyers aren’t the ABA. But the ABA’s family law section is made up of attorneys who practice family law in state courts, i.e. the very same ones who routinely oppose shared parenting. And of course the ABA has never supported shared parenting either in theory or in fact.
Perceptive readers will notice a certain consistency between the opposition of family lawyers to shared parenting bills and the willingness of the panel in Miami to ignore fathers and their value to their children in favor of a small contingent of incarcerated mothers. Both refuse to admit that children need both parents, mothers and fathers alike, and that keeping fathers out of their lives, whether by the criminal justice system or by family law is not in their best interests.
As such, we can only conclude that the ABA isn’t serious about children’s well-being. As is so often true of lawyers, they talk a good game, but do little else.
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