(See also: Children Of War)
An eleven-year-old struggles to reconnect with a mother who has recently been released from prison. The woman's drug conviction means she can't live in public housing, receive welfare, or obtain food stamps. After several months of fruitless job searching and sleeping in a shelter, she accepts an offer from the neighborhood cocaine dealer. This time, when the mother goes back to prison, the daughter refuses to accept her calls.
Criminologist Stephen Richards says, "A successful corrections system doesn't grow. If they were correcting anybody, they'd shrink."
By Richards' standards, the US penal system is a massive failure. Our prisons hold a record 2.1 million men and women. That's twice as many inmates as the prison population of the entire continent of Africa, which is three times the size of the US -- and a five-fold increase from the number of inmates in US prisons 30 years ago. The US incarceration rate of 724 per 100,000 is 25% higher than that of any other nation. And the total number of people incarcerated grew 1.9% last year, bringing to 2.4 million the number of children who now have a mother or father behind bars.
The surge in the US prison population has nothing to do with an increase in violent crime: homicide, rape, robbery, and assault have all declined steadily since 1993. Its source is the so-called "war on drugs," which cost taxpayers a cool 12 billion in 2004 alone, and has done nothing to reduce illegal drug use or availability.
Its most destructive legacy has been the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were created a few decades ago, mostly by lawmakers eager to appear tough on crime in the run up to elections at the height of the Reaganalia ("Just Say No"), and in the midst of public hysteria over the emergence of a potent new drug called crack cocaine. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws dictate fixed sentences for individuals convicted of a crime regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors.
These laws have swelled the number of non-violent, first-time offenders behind bars, and driven the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails overall from 40,000 in 1980 to more than 450,000 today. By 2003, those sentenced for drug offenses made up 55% of all federal inmates. In 2004, law officers made more arrests for drug violations than for any other offense - about 1.7 million arrests, or 12.5% of all arrests.
The only way to reduce one's sentence under mandatory minimum sentencing laws is to provide information to the prosecution that will lead to the conviction of another offender. This has meant that the kingpins the laws were allegedly intended for usually walk free while their low level workers, such as the women who serve as their "drug mules," routinely serve long sentences. That's why the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses rose by 888% between 1986 and 1999, far outpacing the number of men imprisoned for similar crimes.
Journalist Nell Bernstein's excellent new book, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, documents the endless -- and fruitless -- cycle of crime and punishment that the mandatory drug sentencing laws of the past three decades have set into motion, and their devastating effect on the very children, families, and communities that they were allegedly created to protect.
All Alone in the World reads as a compelling mixture of damage assessment and blueprint for the future. Using first-hand stories derived from dozens of interviews with children of incarcerated parents, Bernstein critiques policies around arrest, sentencing, visiting, foster care, reentry, and legacy.
The oftentimes harrowing accounts of her interview subjects not only foreground the trauma children are exposed to through the current system, but offer glimpses of where it has gone wrong - and could go right. The police who came for nine-year-old Ricky's mom were in such a hurry that they left him alone in the apartment with his infant brother. For two weeks, Ricky cooked for himself and his brother, and changed his diapers, until neighbors noticed and called Child Protective Services. Antonia was five when she saw her mother arrested on the street for prostitution -- handcuffed and put into the back of a police car. At home, she and her ten-year-old brother were on their own for a week until their mother returned.
Witnessing a parent being seized and handcuffed at gunpoint and then being left alone in the house to fend for oneself -- and this routinely happens to children during an arrest -- isn't just a bad situation for the child, or one that could easily be redressed by something as simple as an officer taking the child into the next room and asking the parent if there's someone who can take care of him. It also creates early, deep mistrust towards the law and its enforcers -- and, as one officer reminds Bernstein, encouraging children to see police as the enemy does not enhance public or police safety.
Through careful documentation and statistical evidence illustrated by first-hand accounts, Bernstein argues that the well-being of both prisoners and their children is better insured through drug treatment, regular family visits, and parenting classes than it is through simply locking prisoners up, forcing them to communicate with their children by phone or through glass, or farming a child out to a foster home "for their own good" -- i.e., to remove them from the "criminal element" in their lives. The latter may satisfy the current American bloodlust for retribution, but the policies that Bernstein recommends produce far lower rates of recidivism among inmates and decrease the chance that their children will later wind up in trouble with the law themselves.
There are those who will howl that convicted felons don't deserve any "privileges" upon release -- that they should "pay" for their crime forever. But shutting down every means by which a parent can hope to go straight is a recipe for recidivism that punishes both parents and their kids. "Children," Bernstein writes, celebrate their parent's release "with cyclical regularity, then lose hope in increments as she fights a losing battle against joblessness, untreated addiction, and the intractable stigma of a criminal record." When a parent can't get a job or food stamps, or live in public housing or get into a decent drug treatment program because of her past conviction, the resulting strain undermines the parent-child relationship, humiliates and enrages everyone involved, and increases the chances of the parent turning to crime again and the child following her example.
Because this is a book of problems and solutions, Bernstein offers examples from working model programs at every point in her critique. Take New York, where repeat offenders usually face long prison sentences under the notoriously harsh Rockefeller mandatory sentencing laws. The Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program specifically targets hard cases and offers participants a deferred sentence if they agree to spend fifteen to twenty-four months in a residential treatment program instead. Columbia University's five-year evaluation of the program showed that participants were 87% less likely to return to prison than those who simply served their sentence without treatment. And the cost savings of DTAP over the standard charges associated with imprisonment and recidivism have added up to a savings of 26 million dollars since the program began in 1990.
In Oregon, the Department of Corrections is collaborating with other state and non-profit agencies on a Children of Incarcerated Parents project. The initiative fosters family bonds as a means of improving the long-term prospects of the children and their parents alike for working together as a family and avoiding further encounters with the criminal justice system.
In California, a small, select group of women who have been convicted of nonviolent and nonserious offenses (shoplifting, for example) are offered the opportunity to serve one-year sentences together with up to two children -- a situation that allows the women to care for their children rather than sending them into the foster system.
All of these innovative programs cost less money than incarcerating thousands of people each year. All of them are more effective at preventing recidivism. And all of them are still - well, model programs in a country that gives a lot of lip service to "family values," but appears to derive much more satisfaction from locking up its citizens than it does from creating a genuinely rehabilitative justice and penal system.
Innovative approaches like these could have spared Dorothy Gaines and her family quite a bit of trauma. Dorothy is the middle-aged widow and mother of three I wrote about this past spring who wound up doing hard time for conspiracy to deliver crack cocaine, even though police never found any evidence of drugs in her home.
Dorothy was "turned in" by shady friends of her boyfriend who were looking for a way to reduce their mandatory minimum sentences. They told the federal prosecutor that she had been a drug mule, and it worked. The men who actually ran the drug ring reduced their time to five years while Dorothy was convicted of a conspiracy charge and sentenced to nearly 20. She served six before President Clinton commuted her sentence in 2000.
Before her arrest, Dorothy had been a nurse's technician with a good salary who regularly took her children to the zoo, bought them treats, and worked in her garden. That was before police surrounded her car when she stopped at a light on her way back from a family reunion with her three kids. Before they pulled their guns out in front of her eight-year-old son, Phillip, and her daughters, ten-year-old Chara and eighteen-year-old Natasha, or took them back to Dorothy's apartment to rip out her floorboards. Before they hustled her off to jail, where an incompetent, court-appointed attorney bungled her case.
Now Dorothy is out and trying to piece her life together again. But her drug conviction has closed off virtually every avenue to becoming economically self-sufficient and taking her place at the head of her family once more.
Dorothy sounded frustrated when I spoke with her today on the phone. "When you come out, where are you supposed to go?" she steamed. "There's nothing for a person when they come out of the system: no housing, no jobs. You go to fill out a job application and the first thing on it says 'Are you a convicted felon?' They don't want to hire you. If you lie and they find out about it, it's not just that you're not hired: under your parole, those are grounds for terminating your probation and sending you back to prison."
Dorothy was looking forward to December 22nd, when she would be finished serving her five years of probation and could apply for a pardon. Maybe then she would be allowed to work as a nurse's technician once more. "If I could have a real home by Christmas," she sighed, "That would be the best present in the world."
All Alone in the World appears at a crucial point in the public conversation about crime, punishment, and privilege. While white-collar criminals whine about the criminalization of politics, the criminalization of families by a supposedly family-friendly government is a far more real and common thing -- as innocent children are forced to share in the punishment of parents who never stop paying their dues.
Nancy Goldstein's can be reached at email@example.com
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