Do We Want to Be Made Well?

Medical science and technology have contributed to extending longevity and reducing the prevalence of life-threatening medical problems.  We are more aware of risks to life and health, many of them caused by human factors and decisions.  Despite the availability of medical advice and information based on scientific research, we continue to see a persistence of persons engaging in unhealthy, life-threatening behaviors.  Americans fear the threat of criminal behavior but a much greater threat to our health and safety are the more common risky behaviors and personal “bad habits.”

DocNurse

   The lectionary text that was read and heard in many churches a couple weeks ago was a story about Jesus approaching a lame man lying beside a pool of water (John 5:1-9).  Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?”  The man replied “Sir, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred up, and someone else gets to the water before me.” 

          His response was based on an ancient belief in that time that an angel regularly stirred up the water in the pool and gave it divine healing powers.  His reply reflects the frustration and helplessness he felt at not being able to get into the pool’s healing waters. A contemporary response to the man’s complaint may be condescension for his superstitious belief and for doing little else to deal with his physical condition.

          Are we today much different from the man in biblical times?  Do we apply the medical and scientific findings?  Do our decisions and actions reflect that “we want to be made well?”  Many causes of cancer, heart disease and other risks to health and life are preventable, but we persist in risky behaviors and resist many life-saving changes.  Environmental pollution, smoking, diet and eating habits come to mind.  Multiple injuries and fatalities result from distracted driving and cell phone use.  Thousands die each year from firearms, including accidents and suicides.  Treatment and support for mental health services lag behind other medical services.  Deaths from opioids could be prevented by better regulation of pharmacists and corporate greed.  Many more examples come to mind, such as the refusal to get vaccinations against measles and other common illnesses.

HospBed

          Many causes of illness and death are preventableDo we want to be made well?

   We do not believe today that pools of water have magical healing powers, but we are ignoring or refusing to adopt changes and policies that couldmake us well.”  Jesus’s question to the man established a connection and began a healing process.  Healing happens today.  We are made well when we adopt laws, policies and regulations to reduce causes of injury and death.    Healing happens when we take steps to reduce unhealthy and dangerous behaviors and conditions.  Healing happens when we connect with others to promote healthy behavior and habits; and healthy, safe and wholesome communities.

“Punishing Kids Like Adult Criminals”

Exploring the criminology and theology connection seeks a better understanding of persons who commit crimes and how a theological perspective may inform our laws and policies to deal with criminals. A theological understanding of “justice” is “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right.” 

Law violators must be held accountable and punished for crimes.  The question is “how much punishment is enough?”  There is no general agreement, but lawmakers believe that punishments must be severe enough to act as a deterrent.  They also believe that repeated criminal behavior is proof that laws are too lenient.  That belief has resulted in millions of offenders incarcerated, in overcrowded prisons, with few rehabilitative programs, at immense cost to taxpayers.  Current sentencing policies have not reduced crime rates.

Previous blog posts (see “Tags” below) noted the number of youth under 18 who are serving sentences with adult criminals.  Separate juvenile laws and courts were established more than a century ago, but many lawmakers view them as too lenient.

Handcuffs

Science and Juvenile Laws.  Research in developmental psychology supports separate laws for juveniles based on established adolescent-adult differences:

o lower cognitive development means youth do not process information as well

o adolescents have less developed judgment and emotional and social maturity

o youth are less aware of risks; are more likely to risk harm to themselves and others

o they have a different time perspective; think short-term more than long-term

o they are more prone to peer pressure than adults

o they have less experience in decision-making and make poorer judgments

o neuroscience findings show parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and

decision making are underdeveloped compared to adults.*

The American Bar Association (ABA) supports the reduced culpability of youth based on differences in brain development between adults and juveniles.  The ABA agrees that adolescents are less morally culpable for their actions than competent adults and are more capable of change and rehabilitation.

The idea of not holding violent juveniles accountable the same as adults is difficult for many to accept.  Many believe that committing a serious crime is a sign of maturity.  But according to “brain science” that belief is a misconception.  Violent crimes are not “adult” activities.”  It is illogical to think that a youth who kills is more mature than a youth who steals.

Violent crime triggers a desire for harsh punishment and vengeance.  But under our laws courts must consider the act as well as the level of culpability.  This fact does not excuse adolescents from punishment for violent crimes.  It simply reduces their level of culpability and therefore the extent of their punishment.

Does this mean juvenile laws and courts are less effective in reducing crimeNo.  Research indicates that transferring juveniles who commit serious crimes to adult courts and sentencing them to adult prisons does not reduce serious juvenile crime.  Juveniles who are transferred to criminal courts do not have lower recidivism rates than juveniles who are tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.

This is good news.  Criminology and theology are properly connected here.  A better understanding of adolescent offenders leads to a better understanding of laws that apply to them—laws that are just, fair, and appropriate.  Neighborhoods, cities, and victims of juvenile crime gain through a just system that supports positive change, public safety, and does not make offenders worse.

*[Citations and reference support for facts and findings are available in R. Lawrence & M.Hesse, Juvenile Justice: The Essentials. Sage Publications, 2010, pp. 168-170.]

TagsKids and Adults: Same or Different?                   Adult Time for Adult Crime?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”

Adult Time for “Adult Crime”?

Young adults have some of the freedom and responsibilities of their parents and other adults.  But there are limits on what youth are allowed to do on their own.  In my previous blog post (Kids and Adults: Same, or Different?) we noted the limits placed on youth under the age of 18.  Laws and regulations on purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and negotiating contracts reflect our belief that youth are not prepared for such “adult responsibilities.”

Criminal laws pertaining to young people under 18 who commit crimes are a different matter, however.  Contrary to laws and regulations that treat youth under 18 as less responsible, criminal laws allow for juveniles charged with serious crimes to be transferred and tried as adults and locked up in jails and prisons with adult offenders.

Today we have more than 10,000 juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult jails and prisons (according to the Equal Justice initiative).

Law Professor Cara Drinan documents America’s legal contradictions in her new book The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way (Oxford, 2018).

War-onKids

American juvenile justice has indeed “lost its way.”  Beginning with the first Juvenile Court in 1899 juveniles have been tried, adjudicated, and sentenced to correctional and rehabilitative programs in separate courts and institutions from adult offenders.  That changed in the 1980s and 1990s for juvenile delinquents who did “adult crime”—that is, crimes similar to those adults commit.  The “get-tough” punitive approach to crime control replaced the juvenile court goals of rehabilitation and correction in juvenile training schools.  Lawmakers adopted policies of “adult time for adult crime” to appeal to what they perceived was a more “punitive spirit” in America.

To many lawmakers and the general public this “get-tough” approach makes sense.  They believe that it “sends a signal” to young people and will deter serious juvenile crime. Many believe that holding young offenders accountable when they commit “adult crimes” is just and fair.  They do not see a contradiction between other laws that restrict youth under 18 from the same rights as adults.

Cara Drinan and many other legal experts believe the legal inconsistency in laws pertaining to young people is unfair and unjust.  It’s a “War on Kids.”

Criminologists and corrections experts focus on another question beyond that of prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults and sentencing them to prison with adult criminals.  Does it work?  Does punishing juveniles like adults work better to reduce serious juvenile crime?

We’ll address that question next time.  Stay tuned!

TagsKids and Adults:  Same or Different?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”

Kids and Adults: Same, or Different?

Adolescence is a time in life that we would all just love to go back to, right?  “No, no way!” is how most of us would respond!  Adolescence is when we’re not “children” anymore; but we’re also not adults.  Bodies, minds and emotions are developing.  We’re more than children,  almost adults.  Adolescents begin questioning parents’ authority, seek more freedom, and believe they should be treated more like adults.  …and they are.  Parents expect them to be more responsible, make good decisions regarding behavior, school requirements, choice of friends, and how they spend their time.

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Youth are becoming “young adults” with some of the freedom and responsibilities of their parents and other adults.  But there are limits on what young adults are allowed to do on their own.

They drive themselves to school activities, a job, and relieve parents from “chauffeur-duties.”  But they can’t buy a car, register it, or buy insurance on their own.

They can usually be trusted to be at home alone, even overnight when their parents may be gone.  But they cannot leave home without their parents’ permission.  Doing so risks police arrest for being a “runaway.”

Youth under 18 cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes.  Most states and the federal government require parents’ or legal guardians’ signatures for persons under 18 to purchase firearms; to open bank and savings accounts, credit cards, loans, and similar financial transactions; to get health insurance; physician, medical, and hospital care; and to enter into marriage, or join the military.

We place many restrictions on young adults.  Why all these restrictions?  They seem to be physically capable of doing these “adult activities.”  Being “adult” and “responsible” requires more, doesn’t it?  Our laws, regulations, and requirements indicate that we believe young adults are not sufficiently emotionally and mentally mature to be given the same rights and responsibilities as adults over 18.

Inconsistent Laws & Justice Policies

Laws and policies of state and federal governments acted on the same beliefs about the differences between kids and adults—until the 1980s and 1990s.  Did kids all of a sudden become more mature?  No.  No changes in adolescent maturity or development.

What did change was lawmakers’ attitudes and beliefs about youth crime and the proper responses to those crimes.  Until the 1970s juvenile offenders were tried under laws and courts that took account of the differences between youth and adults. Today we have more than 10,000 juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult jails and prisons (according to the Equal Justice initiative).

 

So what’s the problem? What’s the point?  Those kids must have done a serious crime to be in there, right?   The problem is our inconsistency in how we treat youthful offenders compared with how we hold youth responsible for all other behavior and activities.  This inconsistency bears further examination and discussion.  Stay tuned!

Tags       Equal Justice Initiative           Juvenile Delinquency & “West Side” Story

Does Our Past Define Us?

 

Juvenile Delinquency & “Westside Story”

Juvenile crime is a serious problem.  Most young people have engaged in delinquent acts but only a small number are ever caught, arrested or charged with crimes in juvenile court.

Most of us have stories about our deviant “escapades” but our stories don’t include police encounters or nights in a juvenile jailWhy?  Because we “only did it a few times,” “didn’t take anything worth much,” we “never hurt anybody” and more.  Other reasons seldom mentioned are “white privilege,” our home neighborhoods, and because police didn’t patrol our parts of town.

Most of us were lucky.  Religious folks would say we were “blessed,” or “…but for the grace of God go I !” Having two parents who were able to nurture, closely supervise, and guide us through the difficult adolescent years was an advantage.  Living in a nicer part of town with no street crime, no drug sales or gangs reduced our risk of “getting busted”.  Attending schools in crime-free neighborhoods with higher levels of public school funding were to our advantage.

 

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The award-winning play and movie West Side Story depicted a view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings.  The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.  The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.

Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance.  Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight.  Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper.  The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets.  Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence.  His attempts fail, however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile delinquency.

Gee, Officer Krupke

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….

We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….

Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….

They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….

This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!

It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.

He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….

This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.

Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….

Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….

Good entertainment?  Yes!  Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding hearts” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays some of the problems our nation faces due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.

Tags

“Juvenile Justice: The Essentials” (pages 52-53)

www.imdb.com/title/tt0055614

https://www.westsidestory.com/lyrics/

 

More Than “Thoughts and Prayers”

One week ago we commemorated the first anniversary of the school shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Seventeen students at the school were shot and killed on Feb. 14, 2018.

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(Photo courtesy of Kathy Broyard, Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network)

This April will mark twenty years ago since 15 students were killed at Columbine H.S. in Littleton, Colorado in 1999.  Before Columbine, school violence was limited to fights, knife stabbings, and a small number of firearms deaths.  My book on School Crime and Juvenile Justice (1998) had no discussion of school shootings with multiple victims until the 2nd edition came out in 2007.  In the 20 years since its publication more than 325 students between 5 and 18 years of age have been killed in schools.  (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, School-Associated Violent Deaths.)

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I’m not the first person who’s noted the shocking prevalence of mass shootings in U.S. schools and our failure to pass laws and institute policies to reduce the tragic incidents. Yes, our “thoughts and prayers” are with the families and friends of the victims of school violence.  …but can’t we do more?

Certainly we can do more to reduce gun violence.  But doing background checks and placing restrictions on purchases and ownership of firearms in the U.S. has proven to be a challenge for our lawmakers.  Despite the public support for such measures, lawmakers are reluctant to risk political careers on this difficult issue.  Laws and policies to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who might turn them against their own citizens and neighbors has so far evaded us.

Some positive steps are being taken to address what most Americans agree is a national problem.  Church denominations and faith-based organizations are among those addressing the problem.  The Christian Century magazine in 2016 published a series of essays on America’s gun problem.  The publisher of the bi-monthly periodical has since made the collection of articles available for freeThe compilation of five articles addressing gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and America’s long history with guns is intended as a Conversation Guide to get us talking about the problem.

The Presbyterian Church is addressing the problem through educational resources, documentary films, and church-wide initiatives from the national office to individual churches and congregations.  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has turned its attention from a primary focus on assisting victims of floods and hurricanes to the effects of gun violence.  Unlike weather-related disasters, gun violence can be prevented.

David Barnhart is an award-winning director and producer of several films documenting American problems (immigration, clean water, school violence and more).  His films feature in-depth interviews with people in communities that have faced disasters and human suffering.  Trigger” is a documentary film that examines the disastrous effects of gun violence in America through the eyes and voices of those who have been personally touched by it.

Can we solve the problem of gun violence by sponsoring film viewings and discussion groups around the country?  No.  But it’s a start.  Americans don’t hesitate to tackle problems involving life and death.  Why are gun deaths the exception?  The addition of statistics on “school-associated violent deaths” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the importance of this problem.  News of another mass shooting is the first to hit our television screens, all the way to the Oval Office in the White House, where former President Obama expressed his frustration.

The online “PC-USA News” this week featured recognition of the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Reading it brought my mind to thoughts and prayers for the families and friends of the victims of that tragedy.  But it also is a reminder that working together as responsible citizens we can do more than thoughts and prayers.  We can work together to end gun violence.

Tags

Center for Disease Control and Prevention School-associated Deaths

“Trigger” – a film by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Movie trailer for “Trigger”

The Christian Century: “Can We Talk About Guns?

“A Man of God on Patrol”

“Life is what happens when you had other plans.” Not sure to whom that statement is attributed, but it surely applies and is most notable when life-changing events occur.  My son-in-law died just over a week ago.  Officer Jerry Whitson was the kind of man every father would wish for his daughter.  Kind, loving, attentive, open, communicative, and always thinking of and doing for others before himself.

OffrcrWhitson

Jerry battled cancer for more than a year until it finally got the best of him.  He died on January 20th after 57 years of a life well lived.  I grieve with my daughter, grand-children, and Jerry’s family and friends at his premature passing, but we also joined in a celebration of his life.  This man knew that he was going to the “promised land,” words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just over 50 years ago in one of his memorable speeches.

In his 30 years of service in the San Antonio Police Department, Officer Jerry Whitson was the finest example of “a man of God on patrol.”  He saw his role as more than “just a job.”  This was a “calling”—a “call to justice.”  Jerry exemplified the standards of the first public law enforcement officials, about which I wrote in a previous blog (see British “Bobbies” and American Police).

It is so often true that we don’t know how many lives were blessed and touched by someone until after their death.  This was true for Jerry Whitson.  So many persons attended the visitation the evening before his funeral that my daughter greeted persons who had been touched by Jerry’s life for nearly 3 hours, as the line extended up the long aisle of the spacious funeral home chapel.  Jerry’s fellow patrol officers stood solemnly beside his open casket the whole time, doing a moving “changing of the guard” with an honorary salute every 15 minutes.  Their response to my thanks and commendation for taking the time to do this was simply “Jerry woulda done it for me!”

The same sentiment and tribute to this departed brother patrolman was displayed the next day following Jerry’s funeral—appropriately termed “A Celebration of Life” in loving memory of Jerry Whitson.  More than a dozen motorcycle patrolmen riding two abreast led the 2-3 mile-long motorcade for the one-hour-plus ride to Jerry’s final resting place in the Texas Hill Country.  Officer Jerry Whitson, who had been selected to provide police patrol in Washington, DC during the Inauguration of President Barak Obama was now honored with one of his own.

CycleOffcrsCmtry          I miss Jerry.  I grieve for my daughter and grand-children who lost a great husband and father too soon in life.  But we celebrate the life of this great “man of God on patrol.”

TagsJerry Whitson Obituary  https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/universal-city-tx/jerry-whitson-8133956

Blog 28- British “Bobbies” and American Police

 

“Religion and Crime: The Disconnect”

I launched this weblog to share my interest in examining the connections between criminology and theology.  As we have discovered, there are many connections between what we know about criminal behavior—and what we believe about God.  But what difference does it make

My primary interest is how our beliefs are translated into policies.  Are laws enforced fairly?  Are courts impartial with regard to race, ethnicity, or income?  Are sentences imposed with justice and equality for all?  Have efforts been made to restore victims of crime?  Do legislators and justice administrators make decisions based upon the best available research of “what works” and “what doesn’t work” for criminal laws and justice policies?

Crime is a major problem in America that creates fear among citizens and affects where we live, work, go to school, where we walk, drive, and more.  A large portion of our tax dollars are spent on law enforcement, the courts, jails, and prisons.  Despite what seem to be our best efforts the problem of crime persists.

What are we missing?  What are we doing wrong?  Surely the “greatest nation” can do better, can’t we?  For those who believe America is “one nation under God” and who proclaim “In God we Trust” there must be something we’re missing in our “fight against crime.”

Previous blog posts have focused on the connections between American Christian beliefs and criminal justice laws and policies.

—  A Nation Under God…. with Justice for All?

–“Punishing Criminals

Crime, Justice, & Inequality

Biblical Justice

Compassionate Justice

There is a “disconnect” between our Christian beliefs and our policies for preventing crime and administering justice.  The conflicts and inconsistencies between our beliefs and practices have resulted in justice system policies and practices that are neither just nor effective in attaining our goals.

We have focused on“tough-on-crime” policies that result in disproportionate arrests and mass incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities.  Our laws focus disproportionately on persons who possess, use, and sell illegal drugs—most of whom are not violent offenders.  We fail to address the widespread proliferation of firearms in our country, resulting in a growing number of deaths and serious injuries to citizens and law enforcement.  The cost of building and maintaining prisons is skyrocketing—despite the lack of evidence that prison sentences offer a deterrence to crime.

The news is not all bad.  There have always been effective alternatives to incarceration.  Many states and the federal government are revising the tough sentencing policies for non-violent offenders.

As responsible citizens we can make a difference in crime reduction and public safety by informing ourselves and supporting lawmakers who push for justice for all.  As Christians and persons of faith I encourage us to examine whether our beliefs are consistent with our words and our actions.

“Don’t Forget Children of Incarcerated Parents”

In my previous blog we noted that more than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated—about 2.3 percent of all children and youth under 18 years of age.

Most Americans do not think about those serving prison sentences.  Even fewer think about the innocent children who miss the presence and nurturing care of their incarcerated parents.  These innocent victims of crime suffer feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and shame.  Having a mom or dad in prison is an awful secret not shared with others. These kids are overwhelmed with sadness and confusion.

I volunteer with Prison Fellowship and help facilitate a “Reentry Preparation” group that meets weekly in a state prison.  The main regret and concern of the 15 men in the group who are parents of one or more children is how they have hurt them, are not present as a dad, and the year(s) they will miss as their kids grow up.  Kids with a mom or dad in prison face numerous challenges.

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When Michelle’s mom was sent to prison she had to take care of her three younger siblings, making sure there was food on the table, and keeping the house in order. “I was really mad at her,” Michelle recalls. “We felt abandoned.” She had to drop out of school to help provide for them.  Life was a struggle.  But then one Christmas things turned around. Her mom signed up Michelle and her siblings for Angel Tree.  They received gifts of clothes and toys.  Angel Tree was a connection to their mom and made a difference in their lives—like a part of her was there at home with them.

Bobby was just 7 when his dad was sent to prison.  Visiting him was impossible due to the distance of the prison hours away.  Five times Christmas came and went. No gifts from dad.  But then five years later when Bobby was 12 he received a gift from his father: a brand-new basketball. He proudly put it up on the shelf beside his trophies, only occasionally playing with it on the courts.  Whenever he looks up and sees his gift ball he thinks of his dad, knowing his dad thought about him and had the gift delivered through Angel Tree.

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When Anne’s dad entered prison she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.  She was angry, felt an emptiness, and began breaking the law on a path like her father had done.  “I felt mixed up—terrified that my friends may find out about my dad in prison, but yet acting rebellious and bad,” says Anne. Her mom and family struggled that year, but when she got a gift from her dad through Angel Tree her life turned around.  And the next summer it got even better when she was invited to attend Angel Tree camp.  Anne is thankful for the difference the Angel Tree program has made in her life.

 

Prison Fellowship  believes that a restorative approach to prisoners, former prisoners, and all those affected by crime and incarceration can make communities safer and healthier. The ministry is founded on the conviction that all people are created in God’s image and that no life is beyond God’s reach. The program aims to offer hope, healing, and a new life purpose for those caught up in crime, and the innocent family members who are negatively affected.

Angel-PF

Angel Tree”  is a program of Prison Fellowship Ministry that reaches out to the children of prisoners and their families. The program shares God’s love by helping to meet some of the emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.  Thousands of churches and community organizations have committed to serve more than 285,000 Angel Tree kids this year, and the program is inviting more churches and organizations to get involved in this worthy effort.  Angel Tree is one effort to remember and support the innocent children of parents who are incarcerated—and restore and strengthen relationships between parents in prison and their children.

More information is available online for those interested in becoming involved in this worthy ministry of volunteer service.

Tags 

“How Prisons Punish Innocent Children”

Prison Fellowship Ministry

Angel Tree Program

 

How American Prisons Punish Innocent Children

The United States incarcerates about 1.5 million men and women in state and federal prisons today.  The number of men imprisoned is about 1,395,000; and the number of women is about 112,000.  They were convicted of one or more felony crimes and according to sentencing guidelines or a judge’s determination they deserve a prison sentence.  (Those numbers do not include the 740,000 persons held in city and county jails awaiting trial for a felony crime or serving sentences for a misdemeanor conviction.)

Fewer than half of those incarcerated are for violent offenses.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many are in prison for non-violent and drug-related crimes.  A disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities (Blacks and Hispanics) are sentenced to prison compared to White offenders.  Advocates of sentencing reform argue that America’s sentencing policies are excessively harsh and that prison sentences have not reduced crime or increased public safety.

The point of this blog post however is not to question America’s sentencing policies but to bring our attention to the innocent persons affected by incarceration.  They are the children of incarcerated parents.

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A Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that about 809,000 men and women prisoners were parents of minor children under the age of 18. The nation’s prisons held about 744,000 fathers having 1.6 million children; and mothers with more than 147,000 children.  More than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated, accounting for 2.3 percent of the American population under 18 years of age. (There are about 74 million U.S. residents under the age of 18.)

  • A majority of prisoners have a minor child, a quarter of which were age 4 or younger and half were age 9 or younger.
  • More than a third of minor children will reach age 18 while their parent is incarcerated.
  • Fewer than half of parents in state prison lived with their minor children either in the month before arrest or just prior to incarceration.
  • Fathers most commonly reported the child’s mother as current caregiver of their children, while mothers most commonly reported the child’s grandparents.
  • Caregivers for children with incarcerated parents include: the other parent, grandparent, other relatives, foster home or agency, friends, or others.

America’s sentencing policies that are part of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” beginning in the 1980s have resulted in mass incarceration that ranks the U.S. #1 in the world for the rate of incarceration of its citizens.

Beyond the arguments whether tougher sentencing has reduced crime or brought greater public safety, the use of imprisonment on more convicted offenders has greatly affected communities and innocent persons.

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In his book Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged  Neighborhoods Worse, nationally-known criminologist Todd Clear documented the impact of incarceration on families and communities.  Prison sentences negative affect family functioning and result in broken families.  Children with an incarcerated parent have less parental supervision, are at greater risk of parental abuse, and face an increased risk of having their own problems with the justice system.  A child who is exposed to a parent or sibling who went to prison has an increased rather than a decreased risk of incarceration.  Contrary to acting as a deterrent, prison may actually increase rather than decrease crime.

                  Half of parents in state prison reported that they also have had a family                                                         member who had been incarcerated.

                                 Incarceration has many unintended consequences.                                               Children of incarcerated parents are the “collateral consequences” of                                        America’s “tough on crime” policy of mass incarceration.

What can be done to reduce the adverse effects of imprisonment on children?  There are many effective alternatives to incarceration—but that is a long-term solution.  There are programs today that help children of incarcerated parents deal with their loss.

“Stay tuned” for my next blog post when we will see what is being done for children of incarcerated parents—especially during the Christmas holiday season.

Tags

Bureau of Justice Statistics on Prison Populations

Prison Inmates with Children Under 18 years of age