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January 12, 2011

New report on the consequences for kids with parents in prison

As detailed on this webpage, the folks at the research organization Justice Strategies have a new report focused on the nearly two million minor children with a parent in prison.  The full report, which is available here, is titled "Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration."  Here is a snippet from the start of the executive summary:

The pain of losing a parent to a prison sentence matches, in many respects, the trauma of losing a parent to death or divorce. Children “on the outside” with a parent in prison suffer a special stigma. Too often they grow up and grieve under a cloud of low expectations and amidst a swirling set of assumptions that they will fail.

Fifty-three percent of the 1.5 million people held in U.S. prisons by 2007 were the parents of one or more minor children. This percentage translates into more than 1.7 million minor children with an incarcerated parent.

African American children are seven and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.

January 12, 2011 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

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The moral of the story: if you are going to commit crimes, better to have children so you can tell the court that it would be unfairly punishing the kids by incarcerating you.

Posted by: guest | Jan 12, 2011 5:24:38 PM

We need a definition of terms here. I suspect these compassionate researchers use the term parent in the biological sense only. No inquiry into whether the "parent" actually resided with the child and provided financial or emotional support. In fact, a large number of parents in prison did not reside with their progeny prior to arrest and incarceration.

The pathology described here is the result of non-marital birthrates that exceed 70% for blacks, 60% for Hispanics, and 30% for whites.

Posted by: mjs | Jan 12, 2011 6:53:19 PM

The above two comments are so reprehensible that I feel a bit nauseated. Wow. Who are these trolls? What will be their attitude when they or a family member gets thrown behind bars for some non-violent violation of some vague statute or being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

The US incarcerates more people as a percentage of the population than any society/country in human history. If anyone believes that they or their family members could not easily end up as part of this rapidly growing subset of the population, they are quite mistaken.

Posted by: James | Jan 12, 2011 8:48:08 PM

James: It (being arrested) doesn't happen to anyone. You have to raise your hand by willfully violating the law, often many times, before you are arrested.

Posted by: mjs | Jan 12, 2011 9:55:11 PM

James: In my town, there is a waiting list to get into prison for accused murderers. One has to be very busy criminal to qualify, commit hundreds of crimes a year.

Say, Dad comes home. The kids will watch him get high all the time. He will be violent when not getting his way, and they will learn his street methods. When no crack whore is available for her open sex acts, these low ethics criminals will bed their daughters. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Street culture. Yes, these kids are missing out on a lot.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 12, 2011 11:59:04 PM

Is this really the image America wishes to project to the world of what they claim to be the worlds greatest democracy and "the land of the free"?
I wonder if this image is censored in US schools?
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/Incarceration_rates_worldwide.gif
(click on my name)

Posted by: peter | Jan 13, 2011 4:09:57 AM

"What will be their attitude when they or a family member gets thrown behind bars for some non-violent violation of some vague statute or being in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

Largely agree with mjs (9:55 p.m.).

It's a problem that people who ought to know better start with the premise that getting arrested is just something that happens to you or is the sole product of a police officer's (presumably suspect) decision to make an arrest and the prosecutor's (presumably vindictive) decision to prosecute. Even accepting that a very small subset of people who are arrested are arrested mistakenly despite that they just plain didn't do it, with regard to the others: is *no* part of the problem the person's voluntary decision to do something that he or she must have known was illegal?

Moreover, although I can appreciate the arguments that some sentencing laws and guidelines ought to be amended, I'm not impressed by the possibility that large numbers of people are in prison because they unwittingly violated laws that were "vague." If you want to say, for example, that possessing, or even selling, drugs that are currently illegal to possess or sell shouldn't be illegal to possess or sell, or that the sentencing laws are too harsh, fine. I can at least understand the argument that those laws are unwise; I would not understand the argument that those laws--in addition to nearly all of the others for which people are incarcerated in this country--are so "vague" that people don't know that what they're doing is illegal. (And please don't bring up the federal "honest-services fraud" statute; putting aside the Supreme Court's recent decisions, we are not talking about the relatively infinitesimal proportion of prisoners who were convicted of violating laws like that one.)

Posted by: guest | Jan 13, 2011 11:35:35 AM

"Is this really the image America wishes to project to the world of what they claim to be the worlds greatest democracy and "the land of the free"?
I wonder if this image is censored in US schools?"

No, Peter. It was much better 20-25 years ago, when, among other things, homicide rates were many times what they are now (2000+ homicides a year in New York), and police forces had, to a large extent, withdrawn from high-crime neighborhoods, making life miserable (and much more dangerous than it is today) for honest people who just wanted to live their lives and go about their business and be left alone.

No one disagrees that trading off all liberty in exchange for personal security (as in a police state) would be unacceptable. But your conception of "freedom" and what it means to be "free" seems too narrow if it's limited only to freedom from Interference From the State. If I can't walk to and from the grocery store without a strong probability that I'll be robbed, and if I can't let my kids play on the playground because it's dangerous and it's way too likely that they'd get caught in gang cross-fire, that's not really "freedom," even if it's private actors, and not the police or other Agents of the State, who are doing the robbing and the shooting. You ultimately don't have freedom or security in a police state, and you don't have freedom or security in a state of anarchy either.

Posted by: guest | Jan 13, 2011 11:54:13 AM

mjs and guest --

Right on the money. Thank you.

peter --

Anytime the people of the world think, as you do, that Amerca stinks, they can stop coming here in droves, legally and illegally. Instead, it remains the case today, as it has for many years, that hundreds of people every year, and from every corner of the globe, literally risk their lives to come to the USA.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 13, 2011 4:44:49 PM

guest - unless and until you begin to appreciate the need for an inclusive society, you will continue to cause alienation, which contributes to criminality through the neglect of basic social structures and values. The high levels of criminality in the past, and probably today, occur in localized urban area where education, housing, jobs and ethnic integration are poorest or inaccessible to certain groups. These hot spots need targeted solutions, not blanket resort to mass incarceration which, as the title of this thread suggests, carry other problems which were not considered. An inclusive society requires integrated support systems which can be seen to benefit everyone, and which are therefore valued by both those required give as well as those who receive. This may seem rather abstract, but it includes the notion of caring for everyone in society, including those who mess up at times, their families, and especially the young. When you chose to criminalize unnecessarily harshly the young, directly or indirectly, the risk of lifelong alienation and failure within society is very high indeed.

Posted by: peter | Jan 13, 2011 4:48:18 PM

"guest - unless and until you begin to appreciate the need for an inclusive society, you will continue to cause alienation, which contributes to criminality through the neglect of basic social structures and values."

Peter: please tell me that I'm misreading this and that you're not seriously blaming me as a root cause of others' "criminality."

"This may seem rather abstract, but it includes the notion of caring for everyone in society . . . ."

Peter: it does seem rather abstract. I do not think that what you call "mass incarceration" is remotely a sufficient solution to serious societal problems, but I don't think it's fair to dismiss seriously antisocial (and dangerous) behavior as simply "mess[ing] up at times," as if it's only about their bad choices and not at all about the effects their choices have on others.

And (please see my earlier post), I can appreciate arguments that some sentencing laws ought to be amended (e.g., less incarceration, more supervised release), but I fear that what you consider "caring for everyone in society" focuses not on "everyone in society" but the people who are engaged in antisocial and dangerous violations of society's rules. My point was simply that the people who are most likely to be victimized, or whose family members are most likely to be victimized by, others' antisocial and dangerous behavior also count as part of "everyone in society."

I should also say that in my limited experience, few judges relish the prospect of sending a man (or a woman) with a young child to prison for a long time for, say, dealing drugs (in the absence of strong evidence that the defendant is actively endangering the child and that separating the parent from the child is really necessary for the child's basic safety). But there are reasons why it would be terribly problematic just to say "we shouldn't incarcerate defendants who deal drugs and who have small children, unless they're actually proven to have shot someone in the course of selling drugs."

One is that drug organizations aren't stupid: they'll just start recruiting people with small *children* because of the perception that they're (relatively) immune to prosecution and punishment. This isn't speculation; there's a reason why drug gangs in Mexico are so keen to turn minors into assassins. Another reason, and one of the reasons why at least some judges who try to do the right thing across the board get upset when the "but consider the child" card is thrown is that the argument doesn't respect that it's **other peoples' children** (or parents) to whom the defendant was selling drugs, with undoubtedly serious costs for the buyer's family and for society at large.

The bottom line is that I don't believe that just locking everyone up is a sufficient solution. But I don't think that what you call "the notion of caring for everyone in society" is much of a solution either. Other than at the most abstract level, I don't think I understand what that even means (as a practical matter), and, frankly, it doesn't sound like you do either.

Posted by: guest | Jan 13, 2011 5:49:46 PM

Bill - it is often wisely said that it is necessary first to admit to a problem before it can be resolved. Your state of denial and personal comfort is on the back of the suffering of many fellow Americans. More than you might realize are friends of mine.

Posted by: peter | Jan 13, 2011 6:02:52 PM

guest - your cynicism doesn't do you much credit.
You choose to latch onto violence as if it represented the main receptor of the policy of mass incarceration. As Doug's recent post, concerning his contribution to an appellate amicus brief, illustrates, the mindset that created the policy of mass incarceration and extraordinary long sentences, still seen today, applied that blunt, and often unfairly indiscriminate, instrument to a much wider range of offenses. Indeed, on the back of this, the range of offenses have themselves been vastly extended.
You refer to the drug problem, and like Bill, you do so with an insular eye. The drugs problems at your borders are intimately intertwined with the equally problematic export of guns, and to an extent on the failure of political/diplomatic relationships with your neighbors, near and further south. In so far as the drugs problems have fueled addition criminality, the policies pursued to control that, have been widely condemned as having significantly failed. There is a phrase often used abroad when intervening in conflicts - "you need to wins hearts and minds". The struggle for peace requires more than the might of armor. The shock and awe approach to solving the drugs problem has been about as effective as the long-term effects in Iraq. The collateral damage has been immense, and the problem is not resolved.
But getting back to the central theme of my previous post, I'm sorry you do not appreciate or understand the concept of what we might call "corporate responsibility" in terms of the creation of a healthy society. I'm reminded of the opening lines/themes in the musical Les Misérables. You should get the dvd.
A healthy inclusive society doesn't come about without effort, planning and cost. I referred to some key elements - education, housing, job opportunities. Also to the benefits of integration rather than the creation of ethic ghettos. All those things are "your" responsibility, directly and indirectly. Where that responsibility is denied or ignored, then the likelihood of criminality inevitably increases. Now you can cynically state that everyone has a choice, but the reality is that environment has a significant effect on the pressures and state of mind of perpetrators - and often more so on the underdeveloped minds of the young, and those desperate to survive in the ghetto jungle.
Of course I won't convince you. I can already hear the mutterings of the word "socialist". In strictly political terms I am not. In terms of the role I expect of myself and others as an active participant in society, then I am. We stand or fall by the ability of the weakest to succeed alongside us. That is our responsibility.

Posted by: peter | Jan 13, 2011 7:07:20 PM

When it comes to vague criminal statutes, honest services fraud is a tiny tip of the iceberg. See, Kozinski, You Are (Probably) a Federal Criminal, for a discussion of more federal statutes.

Here are few fun state criminal statutes that you, a friend or a family member may find yourself facing one day: assault (he "stood upright and assumed an aggressive posture, placing the defendant in imminent fear of physical attack;" be careful of that body language!), battery (I know someone on three years probation for tossing a letter at someone's chest), terrorist threats (I know someone doing 6 months in county jail for a phone message which they meant as a joke - and which the "victim" and prosecutor knew full well they meant as a joke; careful what you say!), loitering (esp. if you are black, on probation or parole, in a bad part of town, and it's near the end of their shift so the police officers in question need a few more collars to fill their quota; careful where you stand!), solicitation (careful what you joke about!), conspiracy (careful who you talk to!), domestic violence (pounding your fist on the table in anger during an argument with your partner is way more than enough), drunk in public (in most tough-on-crime counties in California, this statute is now literally enforced as consisting of simply: 1) being drunk 2) in public, even though the statute requires much more, but the judges don't care, the police don't care, the prosecutors don't care, and the prison guard unions sure as hell don't care).

Yes, you can't just get arrested for absolutely nothing, as others in this discussion have pointed out. There has to be some intervening factor - a cop needing to fill a quota, a prosecutor needing to fill a quota, a political enemy calling the cops on you, an ex calling the cops on you, a business dispute, a personal dispute - but if any of those things are present and someone, esp. a cop or a prosecutor, wants you to be locked up, you WILL be locked up, believe me. And god forbid you actually did commit a crime, such as importing orchids with improper paperwork, getting into a bar fight, or taking drugs, you are going to get locked up for longer than many rapists and murderers got locked up 20 years ago.

So yeah, you should be just fine, just meditate every day, don't get in any business disputes, don't get in any personal relationships (because they could turn sour), don't ever argue with anyone, don't ever drink alcohol, be very careful about exercising your rights of free speech and free association, don't run for office, and in general lay low and stay quiet. You'll be just fine.

Posted by: James | Jan 13, 2011 7:23:21 PM

"But getting back to the central theme of my previous post, I'm sorry you do not appreciate or understand the concept of what we might call "corporate responsibility" in terms of the creation of a healthy society."

I think I do, probably better than you appreciate.

"Where that responsibility is denied or ignored, then the likelihood of criminality inevitably increases. Now you can cynically state that everyone has a choice, but the reality is that environment has a significant effect on the pressures and state of mind of perpetrators - and often more so on the underdeveloped minds of the young, and those desperate to survive in the ghetto jungle."

I can appreciate the role of environment, and that bad decisions may be easier to make when one grows up in surroundings where appropriate role models are relatively few and far between--seriously. But I don't accept that adult people bear **no** responsibility for decisions that hurt others as if they have **no** choice in the matter. And, by the way, I would never describe a troubled, high-crime neighborhood as a "ghetto jungle," and I'm frankly a bit surprised that you would. They are not "jungles." They are neighborhoods where probably the large majority of people who live there are just trying live their lives in peace but that are deeply troubled, in large part by a relatively small number of antisocial malefactors who are making their lives miserable. (Surely you must accept that the drug dealers on the corner aren't only a **symptom** of larger social problems but also a **cause** of the "pressures and state of mind of perpetrators," particularly "the young"?)

But--and if I misread you please feel free to correct me and tell me why and how I'm wrong--you seem to accept "corporate responsibility" (i.e., everyone is responsible, society is responsible) to the exclusion of individual responsibility, or to believe that everyone, or society at large, is **just as** (or more) responsible for bad decisions that harm others than the people who actually made the decisions.

Again, I can appreciate that bad decisions may be easier to make when one grows up in surroundings where appropriate role models are relatively scarce. That's a problem that isn't addressed simply by removing dangerous troublemakers from those surroundings.

But--if I am misunderstanding your reference to Les Miserables, please set me straight--I really hope you're not comparing people who sell drugs to other peoples' children to Jean Valjean. As I've said, I can appreciate the argument that certain criminal laws, including sentencing laws and guidelines, ought to be modified. But I'm not impressed with the argument--if that is the argument--that selling drugs like cocaine (crack or powder), crystal meth, heroin, etc., to other peoples' children is a victimless crime without consequence for the buyer, the buyer's family, or to society at large. I would also not be impressed that dealing drugs should be dismissed as an acceptable form of of "hustling" and making ends meet for oneself and one's family, as if one is merely stealing a loaf of bread to prevent one's family from starving.

Posted by: guest | Jan 13, 2011 8:19:48 PM

"When it comes to vague criminal statutes, honest services fraud is a tiny tip of the iceberg. See, Kozinski, You Are (Probably) a Federal Criminal, for a discussion of more federal statutes."

James: I'm familiar with the article and I appreciate the problem. I don't think that "vagueness" in criminal laws, or even an expansion in the scope of what acts are prohibited by federal law, is what's driving the increase in incarceration, though.

"Yes, you can't just get arrested for absolutely nothing, as others in this discussion have pointed out. There has to be some intervening factor - a cop needing to fill a quota, a prosecutor needing to fill a quota, a political enemy calling the cops on you, an ex calling the cops on you, a business dispute, a personal dispute - but if any of those things are present and someone, esp. a cop or a prosecutor, wants you to be locked up, you WILL be locked up, believe me. And god forbid you actually did commit a crime, such as importing orchids with improper paperwork . . . ."

James: serious question, not meant to be sarcastic. What percentage of people in prison do you think are in prison **solely** because a police officer or prosecutor "had to fill a quota," etc., or for reasons other than the defendant's actually having done what he was convicted of doing (or actually violating probation/parole as alleged)?

"So yeah, you should be just fine, just meditate every day, don't get in any business disputes, don't get in any personal relationships (because they could turn sour), don't ever argue with anyone, don't ever drink alcohol, be very careful about exercising your rights of free speech and free association, don't run for office, and in general lay low and stay quiet. You'll be just fine."

I don't consider myself especially quiet; it probably would be better for me if I meditated more; I do drink (socially); but I still don't consider it simply a matter of coincidence or dumb luck that I've managed to make it almost to 40 without being locked up.

Posted by: guest | Jan 13, 2011 8:34:00 PM

Thanks for the thoughts and the question. I think realistically the egregious situations often result from a snowball effect when a defendant starts by pleading to "just" probation, then he violates that, then he reoffends in some other relatively minor way, etc., and then he does wind up in prison having never done anything more than the most minor offenses (and/or violating the terms of his probation).

Posted by: James | Jan 14, 2011 2:07:20 AM

"I think realistically the egregious situations often result from a snowball effect when a defendant starts by pleading to "just" probation, then he violates that, then he reoffends in some other relatively minor way, etc., and then he does wind up in prison having never done anything more than the most minor offenses (and/or violating the terms of his probation)."

James: point understood and appreciated, although I'd quibble with the part about "pleading to 'just' probation." I get that what you're saying is just shorthand, but I think it's important to tease out that you don't plead guilty to "probation" but to an actual crime, and presumably (and hopefully) because you actually did what you were accused of doing, and not because you truly didn't but are nevertheless scared of the possibility of a harsher penalty following an (erroneous) conviction at trial.

And although I've never been a probation/parole officer, I have to imagine that the job is often very frustrating. It can't be a very happy or satisfying experience to recommend having someone's probation/parole revoked for what are often dismissed as "technical" violations (acts that aren't themselves crimes), such as missing meetings without a legitimate reason, drinking, associating with people the person isn't supposed to be associating with. At the same time, the officer may have to assume that the noncompliance that's actually been observed is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg and that someone who's already not living up to the conditions of release is likely already reoffending or a strong risk to reoffend. Unhappy and unsatisfying as I assume it is to feel like you may be pulling the trigger and giving up on someone too easily, I have to imagine it's worse to learn that someone you were supervising and who was already known to be fouling up--even in relatively minor ways--has really hurt someone and that the person wouldn't have been hurt if only you'd made the "this isn't working" determination earlier . . . . I'm guess I'm saying I'm glad I'm not a probation or parole officer.

Posted by: guest | Jan 14, 2011 2:36:06 AM

In Marin County, California, a talented, well-educated woman's probation was violated and her 6-month suspended sentence invoked for jaywalking in San Rafael. Her underlying conviction: possession of a small amount of marijuana. (I know the facts of case personally from a reliable colleague and am not exaggerating.)

Another example: a man (a very kind, decent man, by the way) is currently serving two years in San Quentin for failing to send a copy his power bill on a timely basis to Monterey County probation. That example is not from a colleague; the man is a friend of my sister-in-law.

To look at California (my state) as a whole, in counties such as Marin, Placer, Lake, Contra Costa, Monterey, San Diego, and the like (as opposed to San Francisco, Alameda and LA) there is a excess of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and correctional officers. These people yearn to do their jobs like they see on TV shows - actually arrest and convict some real rapists and murderers. But (fortunately) there are few of those in their law-abiding counties. Accordingly, and also as a result of quotas, mandatory arrest policies, and a general need, which is especially palpable in counties with large new jails, to "feed the beast," they aggressively prosecute any crime they can possibly justify, esp. against "undesirables."

Same with probation and parole officers. They don't reluctantly violate people. They may have been reluctant, before their training as probation officers, but then they are taught, by training, mandate and example, to have a prosecutorial mindset and often view their probationees as having gotten off easy and as deserving of prison. They are taught that they are doing their jobs and providing a service to the community by violating people.

As for the initial crimes of which many of these decent people are indeed "guilty," as you point out, they are often only guilty in the sense that Khodorovsky is indeed "guilty" of the crimes with which he was recently convicted in Russia. Did Khodorovsky indeed sell $27 billion in oil as head of Yukos? Yes. Does his conduct fall within Russia's stautorial construction of "money laundering"? Yes. Is his conviction justified in equity? Not in a million years. Was his conduct the sort of conduct that the Russian legislature had in mind when they passed the statute in question? Not in a million years.

The same applies to many of the underlying crimes that we are talking about. Did the legislature intend for tossing a letter at someone's chest to be aggressively prosecuted as a battery? No, but it was still a "touching." Did it intend for people to be aggressively prosecuted for terrorist threats every time they say "I'm going to kick your ass"? No, but that certainly fulfills the relevant statute. Did it intend for a husband pounding his fist on the table in a argument with his wife to be aggressively prosecuted as domestic violence? No, but that fulfills the statute.

While it varies by county and state, and while it can vary according to which office of the US attorney is involved, the overall situation in terms of crime and punishment in this country has become Orwellian. We've apparently made a collective decision that our liberty is not worth much. We've decided that throwing someone in jail for a few months is no big deal at all, and locking someone up for 3-5 years isn't much more than a inconvenience. As part of that, we've stripped the "system" of its capacity for discretion, equity and humanity at every level (mandatory arrests, mandatory prosecution, mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, etc.).

All of us must live within this system that we've created, unless we want to move out of the country. You may feel safely on the other side of the equation, but all it takes is some bad luck or a smart enemy who understands the system to find that you have lost your status as one of "us" and become one of "them." Unfortunately, it is a bit naive to think it cannot happen to you. That may have been true a couple decades ago, but that unfortunately is not the case any longer. If it happens, you will be shocked. Your pleas for the cops and prosecutors and judges to be thoughtful and reasonable will be met at every step with the response: "Sorry, I'm just doing my job. My hands are tied." You will be in the machine, and only then will you understand.

Prison: It's Not Just For Criminals Anymore

Posted by: James | Jan 14, 2011 3:23:06 PM

James: Rent seeking is a crime, as are government sinecures. They are the same as mob no show union jobs. I have proposed legal counterattacking of the government prosecutor, judges. Start by simple total e-discovery, nothing fancy. This causes outrage in the defense bar and shunning. Why? It may deter false prosecutions, and destroy the jobs in the defense bar. You should include the defense bar among the colluding culprits. They want nothing to upset the situation you are describing, since the client is not the source of their employment, but the prosecution.

There is a business model. It and the methods are those of the Inquisition. The latter ended when 10,000 clerics were beheaded or expelled during the French Revolution. The lawyer quietly picked up and ran the same business. Just as you are describing The Inquisition 2.0, it is time for The French Revolution 2.0. There are only 15,000 people in the lawyer hierarchy. Not much cost to have an hour's trial and summary executions, to end their insurrection against our Constitution. There would be no lawyer gotcha in collateral, trivial corruptions. There would be readings of brief passages of their statute drafting, regulatory ramblings, and appellate decisions, as the sole evidence at those brief trials. Those are the real crimes, destroying our nation from within.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 15, 2011 11:42:40 AM

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