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May 7, 2022

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022"

The title of this post is the title of this briefing by Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram and published in time for Mother's Day.  Here is how it gets started:

This Mother’s Day — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put people behind bars at risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.  Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for drug and property offenses, often stemming from poverty and/or substance use disorders.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women preparing to become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

150,000 mothers separated from their children this Mother’s Day is atrocious in and of itself — but that’s just one day.  How many people in the U.S. have experienced separation from their mothers due to incarceration over the years?  Unfortunately, these specific data are not collected, but we calculated some rough estimates based on other research to attempt to answer this question:

  • Roughly 570,000 women living in the U.S. had ever been separated from their minor children by a period of imprisonment as of 2010.
  • An estimated 1.3 million people living in the U.S. had been separated from their mothers before their 18th birthdays due to their mothers’ imprisonment, also as of 2010.

May 7, 2022 at 10:01 PM | Permalink


The pain of separation from children by Moms is unspeakable, and what the children endure are memories that wreak havoc for their lifetimes. Courts are deaf, dumb and blind to this, as per your article which appears above. Further, younger women incarcerated for long periods miss their childbearing years once they're released. A wicked, vicious system.

Posted by: Fluffyross | May 9, 2022 9:58:56 AM

The article is written to make it sound awful, but what are we to do? If “drug and property offenses” deserve to be illegal, then shouldn’t they be equally illegal for everybody? Should the justice system have a different standard for criminals with children than for those without?

Of course, there are good arguments that many of the nation’s drug offenses should not be crimes at all. But the phrase “property offenses” is generally a euphemism for “stealing,” which I believe no one has proposed to decriminalize.

There are also good arguments that we lock up too many people overall, but I worry about the suggestion that mothers who offend should get a better deal than everyone else. (As it is, I believe women generally get lighter sentences than men who commit the identical offense.)

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 10, 2022 8:28:47 AM

Marc Shepherd --

You highlight one of the major concerns we had at DOJ trying to think in the 1980's about what a guidelines system should look like: How much should it tilt toward punishing the offense and how much toward punishing the offender? We decided to tilt it toward the former, since, as you note, tilting it toward the latter inevitably introduces subjective judgments (are mothers "better" -- if so, what about fathers? What about grandparents who help a lot with the kids?). Tilting toward the offender also introduced greater possibilities of irrational discrimination.

Of course I would go beyond that. If incarcerating mothers produces all these bad consequences, then perhaps mothers ought to think twice about doing things that could get themselves incarcerated. The idea that it's all the system's fault is ubiquitous on this blog, but absolutely false. It's amazing how far people can get if they sober up and take responsibility for their own lives.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2022 10:24:13 AM


“Millions of mothers committing crimes will separate them from their children in 2022.”

Fixed it for you.

Your version: “Sperm joining with ovum gets millions of mom’s pregnant.”

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 14, 2022 11:29:56 PM

Tarls, I hope you understand this is not "my version"; the phrasing you dislike is the title given to the Prison Policy Initiative report that I reprint here. This is the PPI "version."

That said, I chose to use the PPI title in part because I share your concern about their framing. I was especially struck by this line: "Most of these women are incarcerated for drug and property offenses, often stemming from poverty and/or substance use disorders. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support." If these mothers are struggling with "poverty and/or substance use disorders," I am not sure we should be so confident that they are always providing their children "a vital source of support."

That all said, I wonder if these dynamics will get worse if/when Roe is overturned and abortion is widely criminalized.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 15, 2022 11:16:45 AM

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