5 Million Children

Yesterday, I joined over 400 people who attended Madison Urban Ministry‘s (MUM) Partner’s for Change luncheon, to celebrate all that MUM has accomplished to bring justice to our community, including:

community-based solutions (that) invest in residence, employment, support, transportation and education that reduce recidivism and reconnect returning prisoners with their families and neighborhoods. Since 2006, the two-year recidivism rate (return to prison for either a new crime or a violation of supervision rules) for MUM re-entry services participants is between 5-14% compared to a statewide recidivism rate of 67%.

University of Wisconsin Prof. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Her focus is on the impact of mass incarceration on children. I have had the good fortune to get to know her previously, and to speak about the school to prison pipeline to her students. With over 2 million Americans in jail or prison, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Remarkably, the U.S. even incarcerates more people than China, despite China’s reputation as a repressive regime and its much larger population than the U.S.

What Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan revealed was that incarcerating so many people has a traumatizing and long lasting impact on our nation’s children, including:

developing negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including substance abuse, externalizing problems, cognitive delays, school failure, truancy, criminal activity, and persistent internalizing problems.

She informed us that:

  • 5 million American children have an incarcerated parent.

This equals 1 in 14 American children. Of course, since our nation has incarcerates a much higher rate of African-American and poor Americans, this also has a disparate impact on poor and African-American children. Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan informed us that:

  • 1 in 8 poor American children have an incarcerated parent; and
  • 1 in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent.

These numbers are shocking, and have both a current and long range impact on how children with incarcerated parents learn and develop into adults. While there are more alarming statistics about the impact of these absurdly high incarceration rates, a systems change approach requires examining solutions to stem the tide of mass incarceration.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope. Last week, Philadelphia announced its intentions to close its notorious 91 year old House of Corrections by 2020 due to reforms initiated 2 years ago. For those concerned about safety, it is notable that these reforms have already dropped Philadelphia’s jail population by 33% without causing an increase in crime.

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The reforms instituted in Philadelphia include:

  • Defense attorneys working harder to get defendants released quickly with no bail or low bail, typically without opposition from prosecutors, and support from the city’s judges who are releasing them.
  • Philadelphia police taking more defendants to treatment rather than jail.
  • More petitions for early parole from longer sentences are being granted.
  • More space is now available in the city’s six jails for rehabilitation programs, and less overtime pay is needed for jail guards.

As Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney said:

The system didn’t work. It didn’t have outcomes that were acceptable. We had a revolving door. Rather than holistically treating people, we’d just lock them up, they’d do their time and then they’d be right back. It’s difficult to take care of your kids, or your parents, if you’re not there.

Kenney attributes two new approaches for making this progress.

  • Early bail review for people still in jail after five days with bonds of $50,000 or less. Kenney said 84 percent of those reviewed were released within five days, and more than 92 percent had shown up for their subsequent hearings; and
  • Police diverting drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and since December “no one who’s been in the program has been rearrested,” Kenney said.

The city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, told the Washington Post that getting a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation “brought all of us together to really examine what’s going on in our system.” She went on  to report that:

One thing the city’s defender system launched was to place lawyers at police district stations to represent clients immediately after an arrest during their first appearance before a bail commissioner. The lawyers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have handled more than 1,400 cases in the past two years. “Now that we’re able to give judges much better information,” she said, “they have found it very useful when they make decisions. Usually they have no more information than the current charges and the criminal history.” But with more context about the defendant’s past, living arrangement and employment, “people are more likely to be released without a cash bond or with more affordable bond amounts.”

Another key player is Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, who announced in February, that:

his office would no longer ask for cash bail for low-level offenses, which he said made the system “fairer for the poor and for people of color.”

Prior to becoming Philadelphia’s DA, Krasner was a long-time civil rights and criminal defense attorney. As he said in a news release,

There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail. It’s simply not fair. We don’t imprison the poor for poverty. This new cash bail policy will not only save the taxpayers money by allowing low-level defendants to maintain their freedom, but it will begin to level the economic and racial playing field in our courtrooms.

While Philadelphia’s progress is laudable, the rest of the nation must follow if it is going to solve its mass incarceration problem which is exacerbating  racial and income disparities at a generational level. To replicate Philadelphia’s success requires systems change. As Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation, told the Washington Post:

Often the problem is we don’t look at it as systems reform. We look at it as one decision-maker at a time, and you don’t get buy-in from somebody. When everyone buys in and the system begins to respond more thoughtfully, there’s more public confidence and legitimacy, and families and communities are all better off.

With help from organizations like MUM, we can make progress in this area. But voters will also need to elect leaders who are committed to the types of reforms Philadelphia is making because non-profits do not get to decide who gets incarcerated and who is released into society.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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