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The Cost of Parental Incarceration

by guest blogger, Nicholas Perry, CCT Intern

If you asked me a week ago about the financial struggles of a family with an incarcerated parent, I’d have brought up the lost income of the family member imprisoned or maybe the lack of job prospects upon release. 2.3 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent and face the realities of a damaged financial present and future. Research clearly shows that having a parent in jail can pull a child into poverty or worsen the situation for one already impoverished. As I dug into the topic, I was shocked to learn that when it comes to financial burden, the loss of the incarcerated person’s income is only the tip of the iceberg. Other costs associated with having a loved one in jail include  legal costs, costs of staying in contact with the incarcerated person, and lost income of the child decades down the road. For a child having a parent incarcerated during their formative years, financial stability is threatened both in the short term,and in their long term future, through the hindrance of their own opportunities for success.

Immediate effects of having either parent incarcerated are either the placement of children in a foster home or strain on the other parent to provide for the children without the second income. This was the impact that was most apparent to me already but even the short term financial strain was worse than I thought. The three main fees are: legal costs, visitation fees, and loss of an income. 65% of families with an incarcerated member struggle meeting basic expenses. 49% with food and 48% with housing. The average debt is over thirteen thousand for court fees, however 40% of children supported by our Families Doing Time program are in households with an annual income of under $10,000 and 92% are in households making under $35,000 a year. What was most shocking to me were the enormous costs associated with visitation and even calling an imprisoned parent. It is difficult enough to maintain a connection through calls and letters but visits are costly and often offer no contact. Out of prison visits for important events or family emergencies can reach up to $100 each day as families are forced to foot the bill for the parole officer themselves. But most significantly, without the parent’s income, a child simply has less resources.

Even after release, having a criminal record remains a large obstacle for parents providing for their children. There are more than 44,000 local, state, and federal restrictions placed on people with criminal backgrounds. The parent will find they no longer have freedom over where they live or what jobs they can work. While housing discrimination is illegal, it still occurs. Daniel Bowes, an N.C. Justice Center lobbyist, explained that every arrest shows up on a background check and he estimates that 64% of employers are influenced by it. While I knew this to be the case as every job I have ever applied for asks whether I have a record, thinking about people with records as parents adds a different dimension. This further limits work opportunities and may even worsen a family’s economic situation since there is a possibility of having to feed one extra person now out of jail without that person’s income. Their children were innocent yet they pay the price even after their parent’s sentence ends.

Long term, children whose parents have been incarcerated tend to suffer mentally and emotionally during their development leading to an increased risk of incarceration themselves.Mental illness is more common amongst these children and their grades tend to suffer. Kristin Turney, a UC Irvine sociologist, examined minors with parents in jail and even when controlling for race and socioeconomic status found an increased probability of attention disorders, anxiety, and learning disabilities. But here is what really gets me: there is some evidence that a having a parent incarcerated is more traumatic than having divorced parents or even a deceased parent. Studies by various psychologists have shown how important our relationships with our caregivers are during our formative years and having a parent who is unable to be present, is devastating to children. This devastation leads too often leads to academic struggles and future financial instability.

Financial stability of children with incarcerated parents is threatened through no fault of their own. What is most heartbreaking is that parental incarceration has not only short term but lifetime long consequences. Long term these children are less likely to attend college or be employed and more likely to go to prison themselves. I’ve always been aware of how your parent’s income or education level can affect your future income or education but I have never thought about the effect incarceration of a parent has throughout the rest of a child’s life.  

I’m grateful that a program like Families Doing Time exists in Charlotte to help children with incarcerated parents. CCT’s mission is to help not only individuals, but families impacted by incarceration. Through Families Doing Time, CCT offers an in-school support program called “Empowering Kids with Incarcerated Parents” (EKWIP) that teaches coping skills and life skills to kids to help curtail the ill-effects of parental incarceration. Annually, the program serves about 300 children in 16 different schools. Families Doing Time also offers case management support and referral services to families, family support groups, and much more.

Despite CCT’s work with families, the need in Charlotte is still great. CCT estimates that at any given time there are around 5,000 children experiencing parental incarceration in Charlotte. CCT’s is stretched to capacity trying to serve just a fraction of those children. If we want to break the cycle of poverty and incarceration we need more resources and services for children impacted by incarceration.

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NC Seeking to Raise the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction

North Carolina is the only state that tries 16 and 17 year old children as adults for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. New York recently passed legislation to phase out charging minors as adults for nonviolent crimes, leaving our state to stand alone and not in a good way.

Current legislation in the NC General Assembly seeks to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, also known as the age of criminal responsibility, to 18, bringing North Carolina in sync with every other state in the country. Although raising the age has faced some opposition from lawmakers who wish to appear tough on crime, research shows that charging children within the adult system has been ineffective. The juvenile system focuses more on rehabilitation and has a more beneficial effect on preventing future crime. In recent years, the tide of public opinion has turned against trying children as adults, and the fact that NC now stands alone in doing so, is a testament to that change. The Center for Community Transitions is in favor of the North Carolina State House’s bill to raise the age because the current system is ineffective, harms our state’s children, and hurts our economy.

Charging minors as adults for nonviolent crimes needs to stop. Nearly 28,000 16 and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the prosecution as adults in criminal court each year. However, 72% of these crimes are misdemeanors, or less serious crimes. Children who face prison time in adult facilities are more likely to face violence and come out with a greater risk of committing another offense and returning to jail. Further, these individuals face barriers to employment, housing, and other basic needs. This in turn puts added strain on our economy and social services. Additionally, the trying, convicting, and sentencing of youth as adults disproportionately effects minorities and the working class. This is a problem. We as a society need to ask ourselves why we continue to use a system that is ineffective.

Subjecting children to the adult justice system is harmful. Children housed in adult prisons are more likely to be rearrested when they are released when compared to the inmate population at large. They also face higher risks of sexual assault and suicide. Why are we continuing to expose children with non violent offenses to this environment before they have even crossed the stage and received their high school diploma? Tough on crime policies are those that focus on zero tolerance to provide law and order. They emphasize the need to punish offenders rather than ensure they do not commit another crime. Some politicians and law enforcement leaders especially have held this view as to not appear weak or soft on crime. However, in Kamala Harris’ book “Smart on Crime” she explains that old tactics in crime prevention just aren’t working. Rehabilitative methods, however, are effective in terms of ensuring the person does not re-offend. Rehabilitation is especially effective with teenagers whose brains are not finished developing. In fact, our minds do not finish developing until our mid to late twenties. With teenagers being a work in progress mentally and emotionally, rehabilitative methods such as counseling and community service are more effective.

Limited economic prospects for youth hurts our entire state’s economy. It is a simple equation. If taxpayers are paying to hold people in prison who could be working, the state is losing money. To look exactly at how raising the age will save the state money, we will take a look at past examples. According to William Lassiter, North Carolina’s head of juvenile justice, past reforms to the juvenile-justice system have led to short-term cost increases but long-term savings have ultimately resulted. In the late 1990s, the system of youth justice was reformed placing a greater emphasis on mental health. Lassiter said the reforms were largely responsible for decreasing juvenile crimes; significantly and while the programs were more expensive in the short term, they provided long term savings. Lassiter reports that, “In 2008 our budget was $178 million. Last year it was $132 million. So already we have saved the taxpayers a significant amount of money.” If somehow, the good for our children can’t motivate us to reform the system, maybe it will motivate us when the pockets of taxpayers feel the effects of a broken system.

Another disturbing aspect of trying juveniles as adults, is is has been repeatedly shown that minorities and low income whites are more likely to be tried as adults, convicted, and sentenced than higher income whites. Minority youth, particularly African Americans, typically face harsher sentencing for the same crime. According to Human Rights Watch, “more than 2,500 people in the United States have been convicted of a crime committed before they were 18 years old and sentenced to life without parole. Nationwide, African Americans make up only 11.1 percent of the population yet are 60 percent of the prisoner population serving life without the opportunity for parole for nonviolent offenses. This is especially a problem as incarcerating minorities at a high rate for non violent offenses promotes a generational cycle of poverty. We have to fight this and support a level playing field for all our state’s children.

Currently the bill to raise the age has passed in the state house and is heading to the senate. If it passes there, the law will go into effect in 2020. If every other state has figured it out, we can and will here in North Carolina. But don’t just wait for the vote. Call your state senators and tell them you support House Bill 280. We need to raise the age so all of our children are safe and are free to pursue opportunities for success.

LifeWorks! Director, Erik Ortega, conducts day long workshop in Gastonia.

LifeWorks! in Gastonia

CCT LifeWorks! has been working with Goodwill Southern Piedmont and Gaston County to bring some of their programming to reentry clients in Gastonia. In February, they conducted a day long workshop with federal inmates at the Gaston County Jail. The program was well-received, and talks are ongoing to bring more services to the area.

The reunited family poses for a photo outside our Center for Women.

A Mother Sees her Daughters for the First Time in 6 Years

Latasha was transferred to CCT Center for Women earlier this year after six years in prison. A wife and mother of two, she struggled with her roles as both behind bars. Her husband, Todd, a wonderful father, did not want their two girls, Baylee and Tannon, to be exposed to the prison atmosphere, and decided that they would not visit their mother in prison. It was a tough decision, one that no family should have to make.

The environment at the Center for Women is very different from a regular corrections facility, resembling a dormitory more than a prison. There are no bars or barbed wire. Residents may decorate their rooms, which they share with one roommate, as they wish. On any given day you’ll see the hustle and bustle of the women coming and going from work, school, or adventures out in the community with our amazingly dedicated volunteer sponsors. So when Latasha came here, she told Todd it was a much more suitable environment for their two girls.

Latasha plays basketball with her youngest daughter.

Latasha plays basketball with her youngest.

After visiting our facility himself, he decided that yes, the homey atmosphere was healthy enough for his children. So, after six long years, the family reunited. After hugs and joyful tears, the foursome played several games of basketball outside the dorm, soaking in the sunshine and relishing simply being together.

By allowing our residents to rebuild relationships and restore family bonds while they are finishing their sentences, we know that they are more likely to make a successful transition back into their homes and communities when they are released.

Newsletter – Fall 2016

CCT’s Fall 2016 Newsletter is out! We’ve had a busy a quarter including our LifeWorks! program’s big move to the Goodwill Opportunity Campus, and the addition of a new service.

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Newsletter Fall 2016 by CCT on Scribd