Rights of incarcerated parents, and the news in criminal justice this week

“The right to your children is the most fundamental one you have, but we strip it from incarcerated parents so casually.”

Since 2006, at least 32,000 incarcerated parents have had their children permanently taken from them without being accused of physical or sexual abuse. In 5,000 of those cases, parental rights appear to have been stripped because of imprisonment alone. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed in 1997, required federally funded child welfare programs to begin to terminate parental rights in most cases where children had been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months. States that facilitated adoptions received more than $639 million in incentive payments. A small number of states, including New York, Washington and Illinois have passed legislation to protect the parental rights of incarcerated people, and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) has indicated that she plans to introduce federal protections for parents who maintain a role in their kids’ lives.

“The reality is states have been doing this. It has been successful. It has been a bipartisan issue…this is the one issue that is bringing people together right now.”

Justice Action Network partnered with the Washington Post and the University of Virginia on Criminal Justice Reform: The Road Ahead, bringing together elected officials and advocates from around the country. Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley discussed the outlook for The First Step Act and committed to working across party lines to move forward. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Representative Sheryl Delozier and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel discussed the commonwealth’s recent justice reforms, including this year’s Clean Slate bill. JAN’s Holly Harris talked with FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye and #cut50’s Jessica Jackson about justice reform’s bipartisan coalitions.  Additional panels featured Senator Mike Lee, Leadership Conference’s Vanita Gupta, FAMM’s Kevin Ring, and Brittany Barnett and Sharanda Jones of the Buried Alive project.

“We need politicians more concerned about the rising taxpayer and human cost of our growing prison system than about what will be printed on direct mailers during the next election cycle; and a public that places more value on reduced crime than increased convictions.”

Two new reports from the Iowa Department of Human Rights highlight the cost of the current justice system and areas that could be ripe for reform in the coming legislative session. The Correctional Policy Project’s Prison Population Forecastpredicts a more than 20% increase in the total prison population over the next ten years, going from the current 8,447 to 10,144. The state’s prisons, already at 116% of capacity, are projected to be at 139% of capacity if no policy changes are made. In its Legislative Recommendations to the General Assemblythe state’s Public Safety Advisory Board suggested changes to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and the implementation of a results-driven approach to corrections and juvenile justice with a consistent cost analysis formula for evaluating programs. Additional recommendations included eliminating driving sanctions for the failure to pay fines and fees. The Iowa Legislature is widely expected to tackle many of these reforms during the 2019 session.

This signals we understand there is a better way to address issues of addiction and mental illness rather than incarceration.”

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin commuted the sentences of 21 people serving time for crimes that now carry no prison term or significantly reduced sentences. Collectively, the clemency recipients had been sentenced to 349 years in prison for drug possession or other nonviolent offenses. The push for commutation was driven by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, with assistance from groups including the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office and students from the University of Tulsa School of Law.

“What we heard from employers in the nonprofit and government sectors who want to hire people who were involved in the justice system is that a lot of times, there’s a gap in technology skills.”

At John Jay College’s Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI), returning citizens can catch up on technological developments they may have missed while they were incarcerated. Students in Tech 101 learn to set up Google accounts and use Microsoft Office suite, get an overview of digital privacy issues, and see how employers use social media when making hiring decisions. Elena Sigman, PRI’s director of collaborative learning, credits partnerships between educational institutions, the justice system, affiliated nonprofits and the city for Tech 101’s success, and hopes it will lead to replicas in other cities and counties.