By Mark Richardson, Texas News Service
AUSTIN – More than 5 million children in the United States, including almost a half-million in Texas, have experienced separation from a parent who is incarcerated. A new Annie E. Casey Foundation report makes a number of recommendations to state and local policymakers to help these children, who often struggle with emotional and financial instability. Katharine Ligon, mental health policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says the Lone Star State’s criminal justice system rarely considers the plight of a person’s family in the sentencing process.
“Texas has historically been a ‘tough-on-crime’ state, where we have a high rate of individuals who are incarcerated,” says Ligon. “But I think there is that cognitive dissonance when we disassociate that individual from their family.”
Ligon says Texas has the second largest group of children with incarcerated parents in the country. The report, called “A Shared Sentence,” recommends that policymakers provide more social services for children and families while a parent is incarcerated, and better job training in prison so parents can support their families when they are released.
Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence for the Casey Foundation, says judges need to consider how a prison sentence might affect a family, and that states and cities need to develop and fund more programs to reinforce the bonds between the parent and their children.
“They’re losing their parent in those critical years of child development and so there are some long-standing impacts,” says Spencer. “It can increase a child’s mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and it can hamper educational achievement in that child.”
For families, the report recommends improving access to financial, legal, child-care and housing assistance while a parent is in prison.
It also recommends minimizing some negative effects of a criminal record to help the parent successfully re-enter society, making it easier to find a job and affordable housing upon their release.