The increased incarceration of mothers has created a new child crisis.
Former President Barack Obama has been quoted as saying, “Our most important task as a nation is to make sure all our young people can achieve their dreams.” I think most people would agree that one of the keys to making that happen is for children to have a stable and loving family. I think that most people would also agree that having a stable and loving family is made harder when one or more of a child’s parents is incarcerated. When the prison population burgeoned, starting in the 1980s, that is exactly what has been happening to more of our children.
Recent statistics show that more than five million children, or about seven percent of the child-aged population currently have or have had a parent put behind bars. The minority rural and poor populations have been disproportionately affected, according to a recent examination of federal statistics. The largest increase in these numbers come from mothers. Since 1980, the number of women incarcerated has grown by more than 750%, twice the rate as for men. Depending on whether they are in prisons or jails, the percentage of females incarcerated that have minor children, for which they are the primary caregiver, ranges between 60% and 80%.
With so many mothers serving prison time, many being single mothers, their sentence is also a sentence levied on their children. Studies show that children with incarcerated parents, particularly their mothers, are at greatly increased risk for psychological problems, behavioral issues, decreased sleep, and poor nutrition. They also face increased chances of entering the criminal justice system themselves, compounding an overcrowded prison system already in crisis.
I think everyone can agree that these children are victims of a situation beyond their control, but what do we do in cases like these? Do we simply not punish mothers for committed crimes, some violent offenses? It would be hard to argue that, but the situation remains for the children, now placed at high risk of repeating the mistakes of their mothers and continuing a tragic cycle.
I believe that we need to attack this issue on multiple fronts. First, we need to continue to fight for expanded prison reform, particularly in the cases of non-violent offenses. In Texas, for example, there are nearly 12,000 women serving time, but a majority of these cases are for non-violent offenses. With drug cases, in particular, it would seem a much better solution to place these women in treatment programs that will hopefully help them back to being productive members of society and caregivers for their children, instead of serving nine years behind bars (the average sentence in Texas for drug related crimes).
Second, we need to support organizations like Girls Embracing Mothers. They are an organization devoted to creating and maintaining programs to help children of incarcerated mothers break that cycle and to lead successful and productive lives. Simply put, a society that doesn’t properly care for its children is one doomed to decay and extinction.