Increasingly tough sentencing laws, which have caused the U.S. prison population to increase fivefold over the past three decades, have also had a tremendous impact on children. But as it stands, sentencing law not only does not require judges to consider children when they make decisions that will affect their lives profoundly; in some cases, it actively forbids them from doing so. A more sensible and humane policy would take into account the fact that sentencing decisions will inevitably affect family members—especially children—and strive to protect their interests as much as possible without compromising public safety.

“Take her away from me, now you’re hurting me.”

Terrence, 24, spent nearly six months on his own as a teenager after his mother was arrested. Today, he is a student and a musician.


When I was 16, the police came. They kicked the door in and took my mom to jail. They told me, “Call somebody to come watch you.” They were so busy trying to take her out, they didn’t care about me.


At first, I didn't know when she would be coming back. Then she called and said she was in jail for possession for sale. She told me to be good and strong. Keep going. After that I just did what she said.


I had to take care of myself for almost six months while she was in jail. I cooked, cleaned, went to school. Stayed out of trouble. I never liked being in my house by myself all the time. It got lonely and it got scary.


I had 56 dollars in a piggy bank. I cracked out some money and bought some food. When the groceries got low, I did some work washing cars in the neighborhood, sold newspapers door to door. That’s what I did to survive.


Nearly THREE QUARTERS of those admitted to state prison have been convicted of non-violent crimes.


The electricity got cut off, but I still had water. Then everything got cut off. I was sitting around there in the dark. I had my friends come over and we’d sit around and talk. Go to sleep together. Wake up and go to school.

In my head I was like, “I’m going to be the man. I’m going to pay the bills. I’m going to try to do it.” But I just didn’t know what to do. I basically had to eat noodles and do what I could until Mom came home. I wanted to show Mom that I’m a man.

Around the fifth month, I ended up meeting some friends in a foster home. When I really started trippin’ off the lights being cut off and everything, I started staying over there a lot.

The foster father asked me, “How come you’ve been spending the night so much? What’s the matter?” I told him, “My mom’s in jail.” He came back with some papers and put me on emergency foster care with him.

My mom, they just put her in jail. Let her do her time. Kick her out. She’s still the same person. She didn’t learn. The biggest solution I can think of is stop bringing the drugs to the area. Just make sure they don’t get it, somehow. If they take the liquor stores off the corner and paint all the buildings and clean the streets up, there won’t be all these guys hangin’ out, and there won’t be as much drugs.


Of every DOLLAR spent on drug abuse and its consequences, only FOUR CENTS goes to prevention and treatment.


I think they shouldn’t have took my mama to jail that first time. Just gave her a ticket or something, and made her go to court, and give her some community service. Some type of alternative, where she can go to the program down the street, or they can come check on her at the house. Give her the opportunity to make up for what she did. Using drugs, she’s hurting herself. Take her away from me and now you’re hurting me.


  • Review current sentencing law in terms of its impact on children and families.
    Ask the child of an incarcerated parent what might have improved his life and his prospects and you're likely to get some version of this answer: “Help for my mom.” Even if they have experienced years of trauma and abandonment, young people are likely to see their parents as troubled and in need of support rather than as bad and in need of punishment.

    Public opinion polls increasingly echo this view: Growing numbers of Americans favor rehabilitation and alternative sentences, particularly for those charged with violating the drug laws. But this shift in opinion has not been sufficient to reverse the growth of the prison population, which reached an historic high of 2.2 million at last count. In this context, the impact on children of unnecessary or overlong prison sentences—as well as the fiscal impact of associated costs such as foster care or welfare for caretakers—warrants serious consideration, as does the potential positive impact of a shift toward community-based alternatives to prison. Children also deserve to have their needs taken into consideration when individual sentences are handed down. The capacity of judges to consider children should be expanded, and they should be encouraged to use the discretion they already have to protect children’s interests.


  • Turn arrest into an opportunity for family preservation.
    Parental arrest can push an already-vulnerable family to the breaking point. Reconceived, it could also be an opportunity to intervene and offer support. If questions about the existence, status and needs of dependent children became part of the intake procedure for arrestees, and efforts were made to connect them and their children with services and supports, the criminal justice system could play a role in bolstering families.


  • Include a family impact statement in pre-sentence investigation reports.
    Parole and probation officers are frequently required by the court to prepare a pre-sentence investigation report (PSI), traditionally aimed at helping judges understand the background, and potential for rehabilitation, of those who come before them. The PSI might be adapted and expanded to include a family impact statement, which would include an assessment of the potential effect of a given sentence on children and families and recommendations for the “least detrimental alternative” sentence in this context. The PSI might also include recommendations aimed at providing services and supports to children during a parent’s absence.



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