In 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated there are 2,298,300 people incarcerated in the United States: 1,316,000 of whom are in state prisons and 615,000 in local jails and 225,000 in federal prisons and jails. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that it costs roughly $80 billion a year to maintain this rate of incarceration.


Texas’ Prison Budget Greater than San Antonio’s


As of December 5, 2018, the Texas Tribune reported that the State of Texas had 141,774 people incarcerated in its 107 prison units with roughly 60,000 more  housed in its jails—putting the state in a virtual tie with California for having the most people locked up. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has an operating budget of $3.4 billion. That’s more than the $2.7 billion Proposed FY 2918 Consolidated Annual Budget for the City of San Antonio—the second largest city in Texas.


These are the immediate and direct consequences of what has been described as “America’s incarceration crisis.” It could also be described as America’s penal shame.


Beyond the direct consequences of inmate incarceration—loss of rights, privileges, choice, movement, etc.—there are collateral consequences to mass incarceration that invokes nothing short of shame for a criminal justice system that is increasingly losing its sense of humanity.


Inmates Losing Parental Rights


Take, for example, the fact that parents who physically or sexually abuse their children are less likely to have their parental rights terminated than those parents who are incarcerated and must give up their children to foster care, according to a recent report by the Marshall Project (“Project”).


The Project reports that over half of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in this nation are parents.


Since 2006, at least 32,000 parents have had their children permanently taken from them “without being accused of physical or sexual abuse,” reports the Project. Of these, 5,000 parents had their parental rights terminated permanently for the simple fact of their incarceration alone.


“There’s an impression among some in our community that incarcerated folks don’t deserve to have a family,” Judge Anthony Capizzi, the immediate past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, told the Project.


One of those folks is a Harvard Law School professor named Elizabeth Bartholet who told the Project that while some parents convicted of crime and incarcerated manage to rehabilitate their lives and make successful reentries into the community, their children should not have to wait for them to get their lives in order.


“You never know if they’ll just go right back to a life of crime,” she callously told the Project, “and kids deserve better than that.”


Family Advocates Fight Back


Fortunately, as the Project points out, there is a “growing contingent of family advocates” who believes that termination of parental rights for incarcerated parents “is a destructive act itself” and is “the most devastating possible collateral consequence of a criminal conviction and incarceration.


One of the people in this growing contingent of family advocates is Kathleen Creamer, a family attorney at Community Services of Philadelphia, who told the Project that, “this is the family separation crisis that no one knows about.”


The efforts of family advocates like Ms. Creamer have been endorsed by lawmakers in a handful of states, including New York, Washington and Illinois, who have passed legislation to help incarcerated parents keep their children.


Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) told the Project that she intends to introduce federal legislation called an “incarcerated parents’ Bill of rights” that will protect parents who maintain a role in their children’s lives not “have their rights terminated.”


Referring to the Project report, Hannah Wiley, writing in the Texas Tribune, pointed out that “nearly half a million children in Texas” have experienced a parent being incarcerated that has led to “potentially devastating emotional and financial effects” on both parent and child.


No state is immune from this crisis.


Half of Americans Have Had Family Member Incarcerated


A recent report by Cornell University and found that 113 million people in this country—roughly half of all American adults—have had a family member incarcerated.


Speaking to this report, Jennifer Erschabek, the Austin executive director of Texas Inmate Families Association, told the Tribune:


“This report is about us. When it comes to the stress, when it comes to the financial hardships imposed on families, when it comes to visitation, everything about the prison system and how it affects families, it’s all there.”


Some key findings in the report, “Every Second: The Impact of the Incarceration Crisis on America’s Families,” are:


  • 64% of American adults have had an immediate or extended family in jail or prison;
  • 5 million American adults have an immediate family member currently incarcerated in jail or prison;
  • 1 in 4 has a sibling incarcerated;
  • 1 in 5 has a parent incarcerated;
  • Black adults are 50% more likely to have had an immediate family member incarcerated;
  • Adults with incomes of less than $25,000 are 61% more likely to have had a family member incarcerated than adults with an income of $100,000 or more;
  • 48% of women and 42% of men have had an immediate family member incarcerated; and
  • Young adults ages 18 to 29 are twice as likely to have had a parent incarcerated than other adults.


Criminal Justice Contact Destroys Economic Viability


The report offered these staggering observations:


“It should not be surprising that families of those who are incarcerated suffer when their loved ones are locked up. However, the extent to which incarceration affects the well-being of families is rarely discussed in criminal justice debates and poorly understood by those who have not been directly impacted.


“The decision to send a person to jail or prison affects the immediate family in myriad ways. On everything from household income to physical and mental health to school outcomes, and even future contact with the criminal justice system, studies have shown that incarceration has a negative impact on family outcomes.


“Even short periods of incarceration can make it impossible for people to maintain employment, make rent or mortgage payments, or fulfill family obligations such as child support. This punishes not just the individual but any family members who rely on their income for financial security.”


The nation’s law-abiding, tax-paying public has both a right and interest in our criminal justice system holding those responsible for criminal wrongdoing accountable. However, that same public has an obligation to make sure that accountability is administered in a fair and equitable manner with the least harm being done to the families of the incarcerated.


Termination of parental rights especially should be a last resort and only done in the interest of a child who has been abused, either physically or sexually, or suffered serious neglect by the incarcerated parent.


The shame of mass incarceration in the modern era of the United States must come to an end.  The mounting cost to families, children, and our communities is far too high.