Last week, Trump administration officials missed a court-ordered deadline to reunite children under five who were separated from their parents after crossing the border. Without a surge of public support, the Senate is similarly at risk of missing their deadline to pass meaningful criminal justice reform that reunifies families separated by incarceration prior to the midterm elections. The disturbing parallels between the separation of migrant families at the border and families separated by the criminal justice system, however, present an opportunity for the public to gain a clearer picture of the total cost of incarceration – and should provide a cause for action.

Researchers have estimated that 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison, with over five million American children having experienced parental incarceration at some point in their life. While the circumstances between incarceration and separation at the border differ, all of these children have lost a parent behind the walls of a jail or detention center.

In both situations, some families are separated because a parent committed an illegal act while others are separated because the government simply posits they did.

In the case of migrant families, there are those who unlawfully crossed the border with children in tow, and there are those who are lawfully seeking asylum but are caught in the crosshairs of the new “zero tolerance” policy.

In the case of the broader criminal justice system, there are parents convicted of a crime and there are defendants who have not been. Indeed, almost two-thirds of those incarcerated in local jails in 2016 had yet to be convicted of the offense charged. While they await their day in court, their children are left behind to face painful circumstances.

Although the anger over the needless separation of any migrant family was apparent across the nation, particular moral outrage has been directed at the separation of families seeking asylum. In an instance where the American government was supposed to protect families from harm, it instead accelerated it.

Current system practices also accelerate harm rather than protection. The application of inordinate bail and bond fees has been shown to impoverish low-income families more than it promotes public safety. Excessive costs for calls home from behind bars can lead to a difficult choice between less food on the table or an increasingly strained relationship between parent and child. And the threat of mandatory minimums or sentencing enhancements can lead to plea deals that encourage the innocent to admit false guilt rather than serve extended time away from their children.

While separated migrant children and children of incarcerated parents are in some ways different, all children are bound by the same psychological and emotional needs. Their cries still sound the same; their childhood marked by a similar loss. Indeed, research has linked parental incarceration with an increased risk for mental health issues, child homelessness, disrupted living arrangements, and an increased likelihood for a child’s future involvement in the criminal justice system. But family reunification will not automatically dispel the pain or ramifications of separation. The decision to separate – or incarcerate – must thus be made with the utmost purpose, and the practice of parental rehabilitation executed with the utmost fervor.

The impact of parental incarceration on a child should be considered as a part of the total equation. When incarceration is deemed the best way to hold someone accountable for their actions, society should ensure that parents are equipped to return home as better citizens as well as better mothers and fathers. After all, these children represent the future; society can invest in them now or let wounds fester. When we choose the former over the latter, their futures become more hopeful and society safer. When we ignore their voices and fail to consider the impact criminal justice policy has on their lives, the cycle of intergenerational trauma and incarceration continues.

Overhauling the criminal justice system will no doubt take an extensive amount of time, effort, and cooperation. Yet 2.7 million children are counting on action during this window of opportunity. It’s time the public considered their voices and the true cost of failed criminal justice policies – just as they have children at the border. A first step must be taken before another deadline has passed.


Image credit: sakhorn




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