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COLUMN: How prison is making life even harder for Hamilton County's poor children and families

Issue affects more than 5 million kids in the U.S.
COLUMN: How prison is making life even harder for Hamilton County's poor children and families
Posted at 2:16 PM, Jul 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-25 14:16:29-04

CINCINNATI — If you think the nation's war on crime has only been tough on the men and women who have been locked up in prisons, think again.

Millions of children across the U.S. are suffering the consequences of their parents' incarceration — and living in poverty is often one of those consequences.

That was the key message Scot Spencer delivered Monday morning during a presentation about a report called "A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities." The presentation was sponsored by the Child Poverty Collaborative and hosted at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency in Bond Hill.

Scot Spencer addresses the group.

"There's been little conversation that has gone on about what we do to help the kids and families who have been incarcerated so we don't repeat this for another cycle and another cycle and another cycle," he said.

Millions of kids' lives hang in the balance.

The "Shared Sentence" report, produced by Spencer and his colleagues at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said more than 5 million kids in the U.S. have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives.

And Spencer, associate director at the foundation, said that estimate is low because it only includes children who have lived with at least one of their parents.

Consider his statistics:

• About 45 percent of incarcerated men who are 24 or younger are fathers.

• Most children are younger than 10. More than 20 percent of kids with parents in state prison are 4 or younger.

• Black and Latino kids are far more likely than their white peers to have a parent incarcerated. Black kids are seven times more likely. Latino kids are three times more likely.

• For families with parents in prison, 65 percent struggle to meet basic needs.

• And not all communities are impacted equally. The foundation's research found that predominantly black neighborhoods are far more likely to have higher incarceration and reentry rates and higher child poverty rates.

Spencer stressed that the Annie E. Casey Foundation isn't saying that people who break the law shouldn't face the consequences. But he noted that the majority of people in prison are there for nonviolent crimes.

"The data is what the data is," Spencer said. "And the question is whether we choose to do something about the data in order to change the outcomes."

Ways to Help

The report offers recommendation to help kids, families and communities:

"Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return."

That includes making it easier for children to preserve or form relationships with their parents while their parents are locked up through changes in visitation policies and rules regarding physical contact.

"Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment."

Spencer suggested more robust funding for prison education programs and he praised "ban-the-box" policies that require employers to wait to ask about a criminal record until after determining whether a candidate is among the most qualified for the job.

"It doesn't mean you ignore their histories," he said. "Ban-the-box is something that allows their talent to shine rather than their history to shadow."

"Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunities."

A big part of this is working to ensure that families have safe, affordable housing, Spencer said. That can require lifting restrictions that make it difficult for people with criminal records to rent government-subsidized housing.

Dorianne Mason, an attorney with the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, addressed the group with data specific to Ohio.

'It's Traumatic For Everyone'

She noted that over the past 40 years in Ohio, the number of people behind bars has more than quadrupled. Now Ohio has the seventh-largest prison population in the U.S., she said.

Across Ohio, there are 52,000 people in state prisons and another 20,000 in local jails, she said.

And while black people make up 12 percent of Ohio's population, they are 43 percent of the prison population, she said.

"There is some disproportionality here that needs to be addressed," she said.

Dorianne Mason, right, takes a question afterward.

The Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a Cincinnati-based public interest law firm that works to reform Ohio's criminal justice system, has gathered information on how incarceration impacts its clients.

• The average client has an income of $1,000 per month and has three dependents — so that's $12,000 per year to support a family of four.

• In addition, 66 percent of the center's clients have paid more than $1,000 in fees and other costs related to their court cases.

• Almost half — 44 percent — are either unemployed or are employed through temporary agencies, which don't offer the kind of stability that families need long-term.

• And 66 percent feel depressed at least "sometimes," while 44 percent feel depressed "often" or "frequently."

"It's traumatic for everyone," Mason said. "Happy children really come from happy parents."

Too often, she and Spencer said, the children of parents who have been to prison don't seem to stand a chance.

In addition to the solutions that Spencer recommended, Mason urged people to find ways to minimize the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, rethink court fines and fees and expand the kinds of relief that people with criminal records can get to help rebuild their lives.

Roughly 250 people attended Monday's event, and they were clearly engaged in the presentation. Several had pointed questions afterward.

'You Have An Obligation'

One gentleman said that instead of suspending child support that imprisoned parents owe while they're behind bars — one of the recommendations Spencer discussed — people in prison who do work for private companies while they're incarcerated should be paid much more.

"We had discussed amongst ourselves whether we should be tackling the issue of the industrial complex and how prison does make money off the backs of prisoners," Spencer said. "The system is doing exactly what it is meant to do. It is an organism that is meant to survive."

"That triggers a conversation about economic exploitation," Mason added. "One component of that is definitely having a conversation around wages. The reason businesses go into those institutions is because they can exploit."

Another lady stood up and said that white communities must get engaged in these problems, too.

"It's been too much comfort with Caucasian communities who refuse to look at the whole aspect of what's going on with the whole aspect of humanity," she said. "You have an obligation to do what's right and not sit back in your communities and do nothing and then cry when it comes to your door."

The crowd applauded when she was finished, and the questions continued.

It was that lady's comment that stuck with me, though. Especially when it comes to the issue of mass incarceration, it can seem like someone else's problem if it has never touched your life.

But in many important ways, the issue touches everyone.

Mason noted that 16 percent of Ohio's available workforce has a criminal conviction for a felony or misdemeanor. If they can't get jobs to support their kids, their kids are far more likely to repeat their parents' cycle of hopelessness.

And as Lynn Marmer, executive director of the Child Poverty Collaborative, put it:

"We cannot be the community we want to be with both the racism and the levels of childhood poverty that we have."

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.