Tony Perkins is President of Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Clarion Ledger on July 29, 2013.
The disintegration of American families is one of the most vexing problems confronting our nation today, fueling increased poverty, illiteracy, drug use and crime. Our criminal justice system is one arena where unintended consequences can jeopardize family unity.
Working in law enforcement and corrections early in my career, I witnessed firsthand how families can bear the brunt of the collateral costs of our society's sentencing policies. That's why I'm 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.
When parents are absent from a child's life, a myriad of negative consequences can follow, including increased high school dropout rates and teen pregnancy. Those life-altering troubles can be compounded when a parent is incarcerated. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that one in every 28 children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just a quarter century ago. Studies show these children will face multiple hardships through no fault of their own. They are more likely to quit school, engage in delinquency and end up in prison themselves. Without strong authority figures and positive role models in their lives, many children of incarcerated parents inevitably veer off track.
Imprisonment of a parent also increases the likelihood a child will live in poverty, as most ex-offenders struggle to find jobs upon release. The same Pew study found that incarceration reduces former inmates' earnings by 40 percent, limiting their future economic mobility.
One fact we often overlook is that two-thirds of these children's parents are in prison for nonviolent offenses. Eighty-five percent of female inmates, for example, are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and most of them are mothers. Given incarceration's impact on families, doesn't it make more sense to place lower-level offenders under mandatory supervision in the community, allowing them to remain connected to their relatives, gainfully employed and available to parent their children?
I am not proposing this approach for all incarcerated parents. Violent and career criminals must be locked up to protect society, and we must also exclude offenders whose crimes endanger their own children, crimes such as manufacturing drugs or engaging in prostitution in the family home. But for many nonviolent offenders, we should do all we can to keep families together while maintaining public safety.
Critics and the media often pigeonhole social conservatives, suggesting we focus on just a few hot-button issues, but the reality is far different. There is surging interest among us in turning the lens of accountability on our criminal justice system to ensure our public safety policies are anchored in proven, effective practices that improve public safety and build stronger families.
At the core of Right on Crime's campaign is its statement of principles. Conservative social policy leaders like Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, Richard Viguerie, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and David Barton have signed this statement because we understand that to protect American families, we need a criminal justice system that works. We need to keep serious, violent criminals in prison while redirecting nonviolent offenders into treatment, job training, education and other programs that, along with drug courts and other innovative approaches, make it less likely they will commit future crimes.
We know keeping families together strengthens our society, and when people with addictions get treatment and probation instead of incarceration, they can straighten out their lives, remain in their homes, hold down jobs and be better parents. This not only saves taxpayers money; it preserves family unity as well.