By JOSHUA BENDER
Capital News Service
LANSING — One in 10 Michigan children has had a parent in jail or in prison, a rate so high it puts Michigan in a tie for the thir- highest rate in the nation, according to a newly released report.
And that has significant ramifications for the mental health of the children.
“This is as traumatic as experiencing domestic violence and abuse, in that the trauma continues to affect kids into adulthood,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, Kids Count project director for the Michigan League for Public Policy, a Lansing-based child welfare advocacy group.
Losing a parent to the penal system puts children at greater risk of depression and anxiety, she said. The loss also puts a greater financial burden on families to cover basic household expenses.
The stress that incarceration puts on families may make it harder for prisoners to adjust to life after they are released, said Kristen Staley, associate director of the Lansing-based Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
“Most people who are locked up, their family is their immediate support network when they get out,” she said. “If they don’t maintain those family ties while in prison, they are that much more likely to re-offend and wind up incarcerated again.”
Nearly one in three Michigan prison inmates released in 2011 was once again behind bars by 2014, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Corrections.
“We need to create a pathway for incarcerated people to re-enter the community and a lot of that centers on being able to find a job,” Guevara Warren said.
The Department of Corrections offers inmates substance abuse treatment and requires inmates without a high school diploma to obtain at least a GED while inside, said Holly Kramer, a communications representative for the department. Inmates have the option of pursuing a secondary degree while incarcerated.
Another substantial challenge is the sheer distance between where many prisoners are incarcerated and where their families live, said Barbara Levine, associate director of the Lansing-based Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending. The drain on finances and time traveling to visit inmates can be challenging for their families.
“Prisoners cannot request to be transferred to facilities closer to home,” she said. Prisoners can request a transfer for general reasons but they may end up farther away.
The department tries to support families beyond regular visitation programs, said Kramer.
It offers programs allowing children to visit parents all day and a program for incarcerated mothers to record books on tape for their children, she said.
And there are other efforts.
A bill recently passed by the House o would replace the temporary family advisory board for the Department of Corrections with a permanent one. The bill now goes to the Senate.
“The advisory board would be a mechanism for family members of people inside to advise the board on policies,” said Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, the bill’s primary sponsor. “We want to create something more permanent to strengthen the connection between prisoners and their families.”
Why does Michigan rank so high?
It is due in part to an excessively punitive justice system and the spread of drugs and associated crimes to rural areas, Wexford County Prosecutor Anthony Badovinac said.
“Drugs beget poverty which beget jail sentences,” he said. “We are a little too punitive and not treatment oriented enough.”
This punitive nature is a relic from the late 20th century era of mandatory sentencing laws, said Daniel Manville, a Michigan State University law professor and director of the law college’s civil rights clinic.
“Michigan had this desire to be number-one in being tough on crime,” he said.
By JOSHUA BENDER