When a person is sent to prison they leave a community behind. And few of the studies of mass incarceration in the U.S. examine the prison system and families. Consider, for example, how incarceration triggers the termination of an incarcerated parent’s parental rights.
What is the extent of the problem? Data on the punitive impact of child welfare policies on families of incarcerated parents are either overly broad or just plain old and outdated. For example, some of the most recent research states that there are between 29,000 and 51,000 children in foster care who have incarcerated parents. But seek more information and the picture gets hazy. More research, even just constructing a database from data kept in separate state systems, would help.
I discovered this when I started to study the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act. From 1995, before the Act, to 2004 adoption rates in the U.S. doubled. This may be due to the financial incentives offered by the federal government to states that had increased their number of adoptions. But the provision in the Act stating that if a child has been in state care (i.e. foster care) for 15 of the last 22 months the state must move to terminate the parent’s parental rights has had a harsh effect on incarcerated parents, leading to untold numbers of family termination.
You see, non-incarcerated parents (“outsiders”) have access to exemptions to the time-based termination provisions. For instance, outsiders, who can regularly visit their child, are empowered to use that as evidence of connection. But incarcerated parents are not in control of whether or not they see their child.
The Act’s time limit provisions that trigger adoption were passed at the same time that incarceration rates were growing. The War on Drugs that began in the 1970’s turned drug abuse, which was once a public health issue, into a law enforcement issue. Cue the rise of mandatory minimums. In the early years of mandatory minimums, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (a drug that happened to be more common in low-income areas, which often have a large minority population) got you a minimum of five years.
Today, under federal policy 100 grams of a substance containing heroin results in a mandatory minimum of five years. However, if a defendant meets certain criteria (e.g. fully cooperated with the government and is a first time offender, etc.) they could get a reduced sentence. Yet, even a reduced sentence would still be between twenty-four to thirty months. If parental rights are challenged when a child is in state care 15 of the last 22 months, and the mandatory minimum is five years (24 to 30 months if you’re lucky) what chances have these policies given families?
As of March 2016 2.3 million people were in some form of corrections facility in the United States. New policies, aiming to create more reasonable sentencing laws, have been introduced in Congress such as the Mandatory Minimum Act of 2015. However, such bills still need to get through the House, the Senate, and the President. Given the uncertainty of the President elect’s intentions, and the clear racial animosity he and his coalition have displayed throughout his campaign, sentencing reform is now precarious. Meanwhile families remain and continue to become separated. Early commentary suggests that sentencing reform is dead. My question is what steps, if any, will we take to help mend the families separated due to the combination of The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and unabated mass incarceration? Because it is clear that mass incarceration is family policy.
Megan Peterson is a 2017 graduate in sociology from Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.