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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Parents are Incarcerated

In Canada, 2012 will see the implementation of a new crime bill that will substantially increase the number of people going to jail. More crimes will be subject to mandatory minimum sentences. There is virtually no professional group that has supported this legislation be it social workers, criminologists, lawyers, psychologists or medical practitioners.  There has been much debate about the impact on society that has included the high probability that increased incarceration rates will, in the long term, actually increase crime rates. Those placed in jail tend to become increasingly alienated from society and become more connected to criminal activity patterns.

This is all occurring in an environment where Canada's crime rates have been falling. The rehabilitation focus has largely been working.

One area that has not received as much attention is what happens to children when parents are incarcerated. The implications of this issue are what will happen to the next generation when the parental one is sent to jail. A book edited by Eddy and Poehlman shows that the outcome is poor. Published about 1 year ago the book concludes that the children "are more likely to experience learning difficulties, poor health, and substance abuse, and eventually be incarcerated themselves."

This creates a burden on the society that goes far beyond the costs of the justice system. Family bonds are broken; more children will end up in foster or alternate care; educational systems will see costs rise; medical and mental health systems will need to support more children. It is typically lower income children who will be most impacted and parental incarceration tends to worsen their situation. 

For these children, they will tend to have less stable living situations which leads to instability in school placements and social relationships. They become impoverished in a multitude of ways that many will never recover from. For these children, parental incarceration makes their world worse. They have not committed a crime but they will pay a huge price for the crime that their parent did commit. Thus, putting the parent in jail should truly be the result of that person being a significant risk to society. Otherwise, why would we as a society seek to pay such long terms costs? These children are the hidden victims of Canada's new crime bill. They should not be hidden yet there has been virtually no discussion about them.

For the child the parent is gone. How can they truly have a relationship that is meaningful through the bars of a prison?

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