Jailing dads needlessly hurts families and children.
This Sunday, households across America will crank up the barbecue and pause collectively to recognize the importance of fathers. As family advocates and devoted dads, we enthusiastically endorse this annual salute to paternal contributions.
But we also know that for more than 2 million of our nation's children, Father's Day is a searing reminder of a loved one who is painfully, and literally, out of reach — serving time behind bars.
Over the past three decades, America's state and federal prison populations grew at an explosive rate, and by 2009 more than 1 in 31 adults was under some form of correctional control, either incarcerated or on probation or parole.
The fiscal impact of this incarceration expansion has been widely discussed. But we are most disturbed by an often-overlooked consequence of imprisonment — its effect on children and families, the innocent casualties left behind.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences highlighted the problem, concluding that "fathers' incarceration and family hardship, including housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children, are strongly related."
Rates of homelessness are higher among families when the father is in prison. Children of the incarcerated are often traumatized by witnessing a parent's arrest, frequently land in foster care, have trouble in school and struggle to form attachments with peers.
Without strong authority figures and positive role models in their lives, many of these children inevitably veer off track. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that imprisonment of a parent also increases the likelihood a child will live in poverty, as most ex-offenders struggle to find jobs upon release.
Prison is certainly the right place for violent and career criminals, and some offenders commit crimes that endanger their own children, such as manufacturing drugs or engaging in prostitution in the family home. Indeed, studies show that when a father is violent or has serious substance abuse problems, incarceration may actually improve his family's well being.
But given the heavy toll incarcerating a parent takes on most kids, it makes sense to place lower-level offenders under mandatory supervision in the community, allowing them to remain connected to family, gainfully employed and available to nurture their children.
Drug courts, probation coupled with swift and certain sanctions and careful monitoring with today's sophisticated new technologies can ensure offenders are held accountable for their crimes but also remain integrated in the family unit.
As for those we do incarcerate, family preservation should remain a key concern for corrections officials. Too often, offenders are sent to prisons hundreds of miles from home, making family visits nearly impossible. Imagine a single mother, working two jobs while managing all the parenting demands. Can we expect her to get time off for a visit, even if she could afford gas for the trip and a hotel?
Most families can't do it, and for them the telephone becomes a vital means of connecting with a missing loved one. But even here our correctional system has worked against families, as telephone rates for calls with inmates have historically been exorbitantly high.
Last fall, after years of attention to the issue, the Federal Communications Commission prohibited price gouging by the private companies that provide interstate telephone service to inmates. Bravo to that, but we urge the FCC to also ensure that other increasingly popular communication technologies, including video visitation and email, are kept affordable for families struggling to stay in touch.
The disintegration of American families is one of the most vexing problems confronting our nation today, and our criminal justice system is one arena where unintended consequences can make things worse.
That's why we're proud to be part of the conservative Right on Crime Campaign, a project of The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Prison Fellowship Ministries. A top priority of the campaign is to keep families together by championing common-sense corrections and sentencing reforms.
Like my fellow conservatives, I've never shied away from tough penalties that hold lawbreakers accountable for their actions. But for the sake of families, I also support criminal justice alternatives that improve public safety, cut costs and help more offenders return to productive, law-abiding lives.
Research proves that when offenders remain connected to their families, it not only helps their kids but also protects the rest of us, reducing recidivism. That evidence clearly validates the importance of making family preservation a priority in our correctional approach.
This Father's Day, let's agree it's also the right thing to do.
Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, is a senior fellow for family empowerment at the Family Research Council.
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