By Michael Leo Owens
Reform criminal justice now. That was the core message US Attorney General Eric Holder delivered recently to the American Bar Association and our nation. He declared that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason” and at great public expense.
Seeking to cut imprisonment rates and spending while protecting the public, Holder has directed the Justice Department to charge non-violent drug offenders with less severe federal crimes. Beyond reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and shortening prison times for lower-level drug felons, while reserving more serious charges and longer sentences for violent and higher-ranking drug traffickers, the Justice Department supports sentencing more people to rehab than re-imprisonment for crimes rooted in drug abuse and addiction.
Those reforms, among others, according to Holder, will do more for “the lives being harmed, not helped, by a criminal justice system that doesnt serve the American people as well as it should”. There is one group of Americans that couldnt agree more – the children of the imprisoned.
Most prisoners are parents of children under 18 years of age. Two-thirds of incarcerated parents are nonviolent offenders, often locked up on minor drug-related charges. They make up the majority of parents in prison, and they and their children are the ones criminal justice reform will most affect.
By the best estimates, about 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent in prison or jail. According to sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Petit (pdf), that means one in 28 kids in the United States (as of 2010) has a mother or father, or both, in lockup – a dramatic change from the one in 125 rate a quarter of a century ago. Approximately one in nine black children have an imprisoned parent, four times as many 25 years ago. Furthermore, 14,000 or more children of the imprisoned annually enter foster care, while an undetermined number enter juvenile detention and adult prisons.