Children & families

Smart Justice responses to crime don't hurt children and families. © M. Baczkowska, with permission

If children and families are at the core of health and stability in our society, it is only reasonable that we ensure that measures to prevent or respond to crime strengthen—rather than weaken—this core.

But as rates of incarceration rise, particularly among women, there’s growing concern about the impact on families.

For children, having a parent in custody has serious implications: They become entwined in a criminal justice system that was not designed with children and families in mind. Their separation from their parents, disrupted care (66% of women in prison have children, but only 5% of those children remain in their original household while their mother is incarcerated), and infrequent visits in a hostile prison environment are associated with long-term emotional and psychological damage.[1] During and after their parents’ incarceration, children suffer from stigma, their social development is delayed, and their opportunities for educational advancement are diminished.[2] And finally, when their parents do emerge from custody, their earnings can diminish very significantly, compromising their children’s economic security, along with all that that entails.[3]

At the same time, incarceration of parents also places a heavy burden on foster care systems and other community and social services, potentially intensifying the instability and harms children face in the short and long terms.

All this would seem to be a design for increasing marginality and criminality, one that is exacerbated by the fact that rates of incarceration are rising most among groups that are already the most vulnerable. In his 2012 annual report, Canada’s Correctional Investigator reported that 21 per cent of the federal penitentiary population was Aboriginal and nine per cent was Black, and that, “incarceration rates for these two groups far exceed their representation rates in Canadian society at large.”[4]

He also reported that in the previous five years, the number of women in federal prisons [5]has increased by almost 40 per cent, while the number of Aboriginal women has increased by more than 80 per cent in the last 10 years.

Yet the majority of those incarcerated were charged with non-violent offences; it is surely Smart Justice to ensure that in cases where there is no risk to the community that remand or sentences be served outside prisons in ways that are protective of families, children and community safety in the long run.

Certainly, if we pursue the same direction of putting more people in prison, which the U.S. and other countries are now abandoning due to astronomical human and economic costs, it will have devastating effects on individuals, families and whole communities with costs to be paid down the road by all Canadians.

Farhat Rehman

Image credit: jmpaget / 123RF Stock Photo