When former Enron executive Andrew Fastow and
his wife Lea were convicted of wire and securities fraud, the judge staggered
their sentences so not to leave their children without a parent.
Millions of other American kids aren't so lucky.
A reprehensible number of children of prisoners in the United States have been
left parentless in recent years thanks in large part to overreaching mandatory
sentencing laws. Often poor, psychologically scarred and prone to generational
cycles of criminality, their numbers grow with the industrial prison complex,
itself an offspring of fear, profit and politically motivated "wars" on drugs
More than 2.2 million citizens are behind bars, a fivefold spike over three
decades. The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group,
reports that the lifer population in U.S. prisons has more than tripled in the
past two decades. One in every 11 federal and state prisoners now carries a
life sentence. And one in four is serving a sentence of 20 years or more.
And the children bear the costs. Many must rely on grandmothers, elderly women
who are often in poor health and financially struggling. Other kids fall into
bureaucratic mazes or shuttle between foster homes. Too many take to the
street, uncorrected problems becoming fountains for new ones.
* 2.4 million American children have a mom or
dad in jail.
* Three in every hundred American children have a parent behind bars.
* The number of incarcerated women (many of them mothers) increased more than
sevenfold between 1980 and the end of 2003, from 13,400 to over 100,000,
according to the General Accounting Office.
In an age of fear factor politicking, can the U.S. combat crime while keeping
families together? Can society protect family bonds by softening mandatory
sentencing laws passed during America's crack hysteria of the 1980s? In short,
can the American criminal justice system be taught to think?
Journalist Nell Bernstein says yes. In her new book,
All Alone in the World, Bernstein deftly uses
studies, interviews, policy recommendations and tragic personal stories to map
the damage our criminal justice system has done to the people it may too
likely house in the future.
You note that some have called over-incarceration the civil rights issue of
the 21st century. You've suggested it may also be the children's issue of our
time. If a new civil rights movement is to emerge, where does it best begin
and who is most likely to start it?
I think the interesting thing is that civil rights movements only work when
led by those affected. There is definitely a movement brewing on the part of
former prisoners looking at lots of things including the legal denial of civil
rights. But when it comes to children it's hard. Obviously young children
can't lead or participate. There are teenagers, young adults, who have
experienced this who are powerful leaders and voices, but there is still a lot
of stigma. Almost more than anything else I've written about, there is a
hesitancy to talk about it.
You report how overly punitive drug laws are responsible for leaving many
children parentless. What in your opinion has lead to the contemporary
American hysteria that prefers retribution to rehabilitation?
I think there are lots of things that contribute to it. But I also don't think
most people think that way anymore. What's really interesting is that recent
polls have showed people turning toward rehabilitation. That wasn't true 10
years ago when there was a real lock-em'-up attitude. The politics hasn't
caught up though.
One problem is that people don't know who's in prison. People assume if you go
to prison you are dangerous and you should be in prison. They don't realize
that a large percent of prisoners are drug offenders or people who committed
nonviolent crimes. Politicians explained to me that you can oppose a
tough-on-crime law when it is being voted on, but once it is enacted it is
immovable. Polls are showing a shift in public opinion and my hope is that it
will filter into politics.
You mention psychologist Robert Coles' theory of the "moral jeopardy" faced by
children. Can you expand on that?
I tried to talk to young people to see how they developed morally when they
felt their family had been treated unjustly by law enforcement or the criminal
justice system. Besides the sentences, these are kids who sometimes have been
treated roughly themselves. Some say kids living in extreme hardship run the
risk of losing their moral compass. I wanted to look at this in kids who had
reason not to trust social contract. And I found that they were morally
complex, struggling to do the right thing and understand what was right even
in the face of complex circumstances.
You call for arrest protocols that support and protect arrestees' children,
the idea being to train police to comfort children during the psychologically
dangerous moments of a parent's arrest. How would you describe the current
state of police preparedness in this regard?
I am not sure police could comfort them. It could be difficult to draw comfort
from the people who are taking your parent away. But they can help them at the
most basic level. People have told me several stories of kids literally left
alone in an apartment after the parent was arrested. There has been national
and statewide research looking to see if police have protocols or policies
about what to do and the great majority don't.
It comes down to common sense. Many police do exercise common sense and
wouldn't leave kids alone. But it's hit and miss. Some departments think twice
about breaking doors. They think twice. If you handcuff someone, can you do it
outside? Do you have to draw weapons? Lots of kids face weapons during arrests
and experience trauma. Police always put safety first but police who have
really thought about this understand that not making yourself into an enemy is
a means of ensuring safety.
You also call for sentences that encourage accountability to children. Can you
expand on that? Are there examples of courts and judges taking these steps?
This is kind of the great irony of indiscriminate use of incarceration. You
hear accountability given as the reason. But being locked up and forced to sit
idle doesn't allow you to do anything for your victim or kids.
Because very many of their parents have drug problems, the kids I interviewed
helped keep me real. Five years ago I would have said using drugs is
victimless crime. But the kids let me know the degree to which they were
harmed by it. I would have said five years ago it was nobody's business. I
don't feel that anymore.
Take Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program in New York, for
example. It's a diversion program, a deferred sentencing program, for
"predicate felons," people with multiple serious priors and a drug problem who
would otherwise be serving long sentences. They sentence them but defer it and
send them to drug rehabilitation and job training. Part of that involves
family visits and counseling and requires people to get better, to learn a
trade and come to terms with the damage done in families.
Prisoners and their families are currently forced to subsidize the state and
private industry through exorbitant collect call rates. You suggest inmates be
given the ability to buy market-rate phone cards and that collect calls should
be billed at standard rates. Are you optimistic that phone companies will ever
make those changes? Are there any laws or activist movements that have gained
ground on this issue?
By phone tax I am referring to the fact that phone companies get exclusive
deals and charge twenty times the regular rates. Some of that money goes to
prisoner welfare funds or, in some cases, general funds. You would have to
take it on at the state level because I don't think phone companies could
unilaterally lower rates since they bid for the contract. But for example in
the federal system, or in Oregon, which is a family conscious state, someone
in prison can take earnings, buy a phone card and call their family. The women
I talked to said that means so much.
Like a lot of the problems with the system, it would not take rocket science
to fix them. It would be easy if people were committed to it. And it would
mean a world of difference for these children and these families.