March 2017

Children of those behind bars are unintended victims of mass incarceration, say researchers

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.

According to Hagan, the continued efforts of other presidents – such as Nixon’s “war on crime,” Reagan’s “war on drugs” and Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform initiatives – have all perpetuated mass incarceration, which has had a serious impact on the needs and rights of the children of those behind bars – as well as the communities where they reside.

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.

Donald said that she and her fellow judges have seen those of the “prison generation” too often in their courts.

Urging states to address the underlying problems that children of those incarcerated face, Donald said that we are not doing enough. “We don’t really focus on it until the backend.” Instead, we must act sooner, “before lives are ruined.”

On the bright side, Donald said the courts are now taking into consideration brain and social sciences research to help inform decision making.

Others on the panel included Marissel Descalzo, partner, Tache, Bronis, Christianson and Descalzo, P.A.; Meredith Martin Rountree, visiting assistant professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker Schoool of Law; and Neal R. Sonnett, founder and managing partner at Neal R. Sonnett, P.A.

The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on Disability RightsSection of Civil Rights and Social JusticeCriminal Justice SectionSolo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

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