Mass Incarceration is a Kids’ Issue

Across the country, racial justice organizers and advocates are turning the tide of the failed, racially biased War on Drugs by changing laws to reduce mass incarceration. This is a growing, vibrant movement, primarily led by people of color and by those who have experienced incarceration first hand.

It’s time for the vast array of children’s advocacy groups to join this movement in a more visible and assertive way.  It’s time for those who advocate for preschool expansions, for children’s health insurance and for public education to get with it. It’s time.

Mass incarceration is a kids’ issue.

Mass incarceration has hurt kids in a profound way. It has been a major driver of generational family poverty; it has caused kids to grow up without a parent; it is a source of shame, humiliation and stigma. It is a source of lasting trauma.

According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated:

  • More than 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. That is 1 in 28 kids.
  • 10 million children have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives.
  • About 15-20% of children entering the foster care system have an incarcerated parent.[i]

An Education Week article summarized the impact:

“Studies show that parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to student’s education, health and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves.”[ii]

As with mass incarceration, the African American community is bearing the brunt of this trauma. Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was fourteen.

The War on Drugs has been a War on Black Children.

Latino families have also been disproportionately impacted and have experienced a collusion between the drug war and anti-immigrant deportation policies. Kids can be separated long term from a parent who is arrested on a minor drug charge and then deported.

In my experience, children’s advocacy groups are typically white-led, while the racial justice movement is led by people of color. This may explain why many children’s advocacy groups have yet to take a clear and consistent stand in support of ending mass incarceration. Those of us who are white, including myself, are distant from the problem.

It’s time for us to get behind and support those leading the way; it’s time to endorse the bills and the ballot measures and to put time and resources into educating the huge base of white children’s advocates about this issue.

One big step forward in the campaign to reduce mass incarceration is to decriminalize marijuana. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow notes that arrests for marijuana possession account for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990’s. [iii]

Thousands of kids have lost their parents to prison simply for marijuana possession. That has to stop.

A terrific documentary Invisible Bars has just been released that illustrates these issues. See the trailer here.

Jim Keddy

[ii] Sarah D. Sparks, “Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say,” Education Week (February 24, 2015).
[iii]The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 60.

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