By Valerie Strauss
* By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time. On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
* The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.
* A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs. Of imprisoned fathers of African American children, only one-third are in prison because of a violent crime.
* Research in criminal justice, health, sociology, epidemiology, and economics demonstrates that when parents are incarcerated, children do worse across cognitive and noncognitive outcome measures — and the incarceration is a key cause. For example, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school; develop learning disabilities; misbehave in school; suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.
Those are findings from a new report released by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute that says the “evidence is overwhelming that the unjustified incarceration of African American fathers (and, increasingly, mothers as well) is an important cause of the lowered performance of their children” and of the racial achievement gap.
When parents are imprisoned, it is not only they who suffer, but also their offspring. The number of children affected has grown to the point that we can reasonably infer that our criminal justice system is making an important contribution to the racial achievement gap in both cognitive and non cognitive skills.
The report also says that educators should view criminal justice reform as a key part of school reform and join forces with reformers in the area of criminal justice.
Educators have paid too little heed to this criminal justice crisis. Criminal justice reform should be a policy priority for educators who are committed to improving the achievement of African American children. While reform of federal policy may seem implausible in a Trump administration, educators can seize opportunities for such advocacy at state and local levels because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons. In 2014, over 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for nonviolent crimes. Over 600,000 of these were in state, not federal, prisons.
The report was done by Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein, both of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. Morsy is a senior lecturer in education at the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, and a research associate at EPI. Rothstein is also an EPI research associate as well as a senior fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and author of the forthcoming “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” A former national education writer for the New York Times, Rothstein also has written books that include “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,” and “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.”
This article was published on The Washington Post's website on March 15, 2017.
By Maria Biery C’18
On February 1, Penn Law hosted a panel discussion titled “Double Standards: Mass Incarceration, Sexual Assault, and the Brock Turner Case.” Georgetown Law professor and criminal defense attorney Abbe Smith, Penn Law professor Dorothy Roberts, Executive Director of Restorative Encounters Barbie Fischer, and Attorney Advisor at AEquitas Vikki Kristiansson participated in the event to discuss how sexual assault cases and the problems associated with mass incarceration coincide.
The case of former Stanford student Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman and sentenced to six months in jail, was referenced as an example of this connection throughout the discussion.
Kristiansson started with the topic of rape and the biases and misconceptions associated with the term. She stated that, as a society, many of us don’t know what rape is. “We are all brought up thinking that rape, still, is a stranger grabbing a stranger violently off of a street corner, bringing that person into a dark alley, beating up that person, and very, very violently raping that person,” said Kristiansson.
However, she has seen that most rape usually happens between people who are not strangers, and, since this does not conform to most people’s definition of rape, victims are met with scrutiny that results in legal challenges.
Professor Abbe Smith went on to look at the case of Brock Turner. To her, the sentence of six months in county jail was appropriate, given the circumstances. She stated that the judge in the case — a fact, she remarked, that people have often overlooked — “was being respectful of the victim’s wishes in crafting a sentence,” since the victim stated that she did not want Turner to “rot in jail.” Turner, she continued, expressed remorse for his actions, there was no evidence suggesting he would commit an act of sexual assault again, and, therefore, his sentence was fair.
Professor Roberts, then, segued into the topic of mass incarceration. “I think we live in a state where imprisonment is the solution for problems that arise from social inequality in our country,” she stated. The role of racism shapes who feels entitled to sexually assaulting another, according to Roberts, and, in connection, “racism and sexism within rape law is related to the other problem of mass incarceration.”
Roberts stated that, “It is important while we work to reform views about sexual assault, that we also work against mass incarceration.”
Barbie Fischer closed with a discussion on her work in restorative justice. To counter some of the misconceptions surrounding the term, Fischer explained that, “Restorative justice is a framework, a philosophy. It is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and it is not soft on crime.”
Fischer stated that she feels the criminal justice system is set up so that offenders don’t have to face what they did, and they get to hide from it.
She does not discount that the criminal system has to exist, but she does not think that one can find support in the system. She believes the best way to fix this is for lawyers to be trauma-informed, and there should be defense-initiated victim outreach, plea bargains, and sexual deviant evaluations. Fischer also stated that lawyers should respect victim advocates, as they best understand the needs of the victim.
This article was published on the University of Pennsylvania Law School's website on February 7, 2017.