Mass incarceration has been a point of contention within the United States for years now, and is a subject at the forefront of every conversation regarding prison reform around the country. A troubling aspect that is not often considered when faced with this issue, however, is just how drastically this affects the children and families of those incarcerated.
According to The Sentencing Project and the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, as of 2017, one in every 12 American children under the age of 18 will or already have experienced an incarcerated parent in their lifetime. Of those parents sentenced to prison, roughly half of them served as the primary source of financial support for their children. While the justice system is a necessity, these increasingly worrisome statistics clearly show that some type of reform is needed.
Between 1980 and 2015 alone, prison and jail populations in the U.S. quadrupled, with the total now sitting at over 2.2 million individuals. Almost 5 million other people are also under parole or some type of probation supervision. At first glance, one might assume that these numbers have risen accordingly with growing crime rates. However, the rate of violent crime in our country is at a historic low since the early 1990s, nearly 50% below what it once was, proving that this growth in incarceration is directly due to policy changes.
Longer mandatory minimum sentences is one of the many changes in policy that have translated to a dramatic increase in prison populations. Others include a decline in the use of parole, stricter mandates on substance abuse (regardless of severity), and incarcerated individuals left waiting on trial, forever hanging in the balance of the criminal justice system.
This newer, more vindictive style of policing has led to a severe disproportion in communities of color. African Americans make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population. However, people of color as a whole account for 67% of this country’s prison populations; a disconcerting statistic that, unfortunately, has manifested in a number of recent events. Taking these into consideration, it makes sense that African Americans have been targeted much more frequently, and are far more likely to be arrested or convicted than any other ethnicity. This is the result of bias within the justice system and a lack of proper legal defense resources, just to name a few contributing factors.
The overarching theme here is that with higher incarceration rates comes a plethora of issues. Children separated from their parents are at a high risk of developing depression, anxiety, aggressive behavioral issues, and more depending on age, and how much time their parents spend behind bars. Those within the criminal justice system that feel this punitive policing is beneficial are actually causing adverse effects, clouding many children’s vision who may be exposed to this at a young age. They could then grow up with a resentful disposition toward authority and policing.
Once an incarcerated parent returns to his or her home following their sentence, the effects are felt long after. Many federal and state laws in place today prevent ex-convicts from rejoining the working world, finding adequate housing, and obtaining financial resources to get them back on their feet. Families feel the burden of these issues as well on top of having to repair the potentially damaged relationships caused by extended periods of time away from one another.
Mass incarceration is one of the United States’ most prevalent issues today, and needs to be met with reform and stronger interventions. Because of the trauma children and families deal with upon and parent, guardian, or significant other being incarcerated, reform should translate to reduced sentence times, alternative sentencing options, the elimination of legal restrictions for those with a criminal record, and stronger protection of children through social work and/or caregivers, just to name a few strategies.