The growing demand to make significant reforms and changes to federal criminal justice laws gathered a powerful head of steam last week after a major effort by President Obama and a number of bipartisan congressional comments. There is a growing consensus starting with the President and including Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives to address the mandatory minimums sentences and to change federal criminal laws in a way that will adjust the number and type of people in federal prisons. The growing consensus could also give an added boost to a drive to reform the juvenile justice system.
Earlier this year a bipartisan Senate bill had been introduced by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-OH), (S 1169) that would reauthorize and make changes to the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The bill attempts to strengthen the JJDPA’s core protections with one of the priorities including efforts to address an exception clause in current law that results in the jailing of children for “status offenses.” The JJDPA prohibits the jailing of children who engage in status offenses such as skipping school and running away from home, but an exception is granted when a child is found in violation of a valid court order. In 2012, this court flexibility resulted in an estimated 7000 jailings nationwide. Such an effort is consistent with the broad criminal justice reform push taking place.
The President began his latest effort to promote criminal justice reforms on Monday by issuing 46 presidential pardons to lower level drug offenders. By mid-week he called for reforms in a speech at the NAACP’s annual convention and he then followed that up with a site visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma.
While the President was flagging the issue, there was a forum on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. A group of four senators, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) came together in a bipartisan discussion expressing a number of areas where they have common ground and would like to see changes including a change in mandatory minimum sentences and better training and education for prisoners before re-entry into society.
The concern is that the United States went overboard 20 to 30 years ago with the drive to enact mandatory minimum federal sentences (which were also being enacted at the local level). The requirements lock judges into specific and harsh sentences for some lesser drug crimes. Nationally the prison population has gone from a 500,000 in 1982 to 2.3 million in 2015.
The federal part and cost of that prison population is 219,000 prisoners, a number considered to be 24,000 over capacity. The cost of that federal prison population is $6.7 billion.
By comparison child welfare is sometimes described as a high cost to the federal government at a projected FY 2016 cost of $7.3 billion for more than 630,000 children in foster care, kinship care and adoption assistance.
There are other connections to child welfare. According to the PEW Charitable Trusts, in 2010, there were 1.2 million inmates—more than half of the incarcerated populations—who are parents of children under age 18. Two-thirds of these incarcerated parents were serving time for a non-violent crime while one-third were serving time for a violent one. That translates into 2.7 million minor children who have a parent in jail or prison. The report also determined that 1-in-28 children (3.6%) have an incarcerated parent and 25 years before that statistic was 1-in-125.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2009 indicated that more than 14,000 children entered foster care due to the incarceration of a parent although the report indicated that data could be underreporting the numbers.
In addition a 2014 policy brief by the Indian Association of Resources and Child Advocacy (IARCA) based on a survey that reviewed 15 years of data on more than 52,000 children in foster care, residential care and transitional living programs showed a range of 26 percent to 44 percent of children in care had a parent incarcerated (27 to 44 percent for children and youth in residential care and 26 to 39 percent for children and youth in foster care), adding one more area of trauma for many children in foster care.