For over two years in the mid-1990s, I was an absentee father — not by choice, but because I was inmate 06833-097, a federal prisoner. We had two daughters, Courtney and Katie, and one son, Jamie. When I was sent to prison, Courtney was five years old, Katie was four, and Jamie was just 10 months old. Too young to understand any of the legal issues, they only knew that their father was not at home with them. They felt abandoned. Neither the children nor my wife Gail had done anything wrong, yet they were paying a terrible price.
My imprisonment caused serious disruptions for my family. I was no longer able to provide the financial and emotional support they needed. There is a tremendous cost to imprisonment that goes far beyond the loss of income. Gail was on her own with no one to “spell” her and take over when she was exhausted. When all three children came down with chicken pox at the same time, my wife was at the end of her rope. Had I been at home we could have taken turns caring for the children.
Even prison visits could be traumatic. My daughters were shocked and wide-eyed with fear when a prions officer screamed at my wife for setting little Jamie down on the counter at the security checkpoint to get her license out. “You can’t start another line,” he screamed. The girls had never seen their mother treated with such disrespect.
It is important that we rethink the assumption that prison should be the default sanction for every crime. Up until the 1970s prison beds were reserved for truly dangerous offenders, with low risk offenders punished in the community with strict supervision. That way they could remain with their families, and work to support them.
In the last 30 years, we have seen dramatic drops in crime rates, yet over two million Americans remain behind bars. We maintain our prison system at an enormous fiscal expense. This cost to taxpayers might be worth it if these institutions actually reformed the hearts as well as the habits of offenders. But they cannot. Too many leave prisons without the skills they need to survive on the outside as law-abiding citizens. In fact, the experience of incarceration leaves many with more anti-social attitudes than they had held when they went into prison.
Separation of children due to imprisonment is a major national problem. Research staff at the Pew Charitable Trusts have found that one in 28 children in the United States has a parent held behind bars. My own experience as a prison father convinces me that we must re-examine our sentencing policies to take into account concern for the well-being of the children left behind — and, as well, to acknowledge the important and unique influence as father has on their children.
Losing a parent to prison often results in poverty that long outlasts the parent’s release because employment opportunities are few and far between when they return home. These children may face disruptions that can land them in foster care. They are likely to have difficulty in school. They may be stigmatized and ostracized by their peers. Lacking positive role models to encourage pro-social behavior, too many of these children will engage in delinquent behaviors and land themselves in jail.
The criminal justice system doesn’t have to remain such an impediment to strong families. And we have some powerful examples of better alternatives. In Washington state the Family Offender Sentencing Alternative (FOSA) grants judges the power to waive a prison sentence for a parent convicted of a felony, and instead impose specialized community supervision with treatment and programming, provided by the state Department of Corrections, Community Corrections Division. Washington’s FOSA program has a remarkable 10-year record of success in keeping families together while reducing the rate of reoffending more than 71 percent.
Recently, efforts to create alternatives that promote and sustain family unity are growing. Five more states, Oregon, Massachusetts, Illinois, California and Tennessee have enacted legislation to encourage consideration of such alternatives at sentencing and some have provided resources for development of supervision and community programs that focus on the well-being of the child. Oregon is currently maintaining pilot programs in five counties.
A prison sentence should never be the automatic punishment in felony cases. A judge should be mindful of the consequences — short-term on the family, even longer-term on the community. Liberals and conservatives alike need to look at the larger social toll of our current practices and turn toward more effective, humane alternative options that allow a parent to remain with — and nurture – their children, while improving their parenting skills, and maintain gainful employment.
There will soon be legislation introduced in Congress to encourage states to adopts pilot programs like FOSA. I hope they adopt this legislation and fund some of these pilots. Our goal must be to strengthen the bonds between parents and their children, not to break them. The result will be stronger families and safer communities.
• Pat Nolan was previously Republican Leader of the California State Assembly and is the founder and director of the Nolan Center for Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.
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