Realignment: An Opportunity to Keep Mothers and Children Together?

Realignment: An Opportunity to Keep Mothers and Children Together?

September 17, 2012 | Caitlin Dunklee and Thoai Lu

California’s criminal justice system is in flux. Following a Supreme Court order to relieve severe overcrowding, state prisons are depopulating and counties are charged with responding to low-level felony offenses locally. Recent headlines have read: “California underestimated number of people sent to county jail”, “Grand Jury warns of overcrowding in jails”, and “Finding money in California’s prisons”. As counties tailor strategies and implement plans to address crime locally, one story has yet to be told: How realignment will impact system-involved mothers and their children.

California’s criminal justice system is in flux. Following a Supreme Court order to relieve severe overcrowding, state prisons are depopulating and counties are charged with responding to low-level felony offenses locally. Recent headlines have read: “California underestimated number of people sent to county jail”, “Grand Jury warns of overcrowding in jails”, and “Finding money in California’s prisons”. As counties tailor strategies and implement plans to address crime locally, one story has yet to be told: How realignment will impact system-involved mothers and their children.

Research indicates that parental incarceration increases the risk that a child will drop out of school, enter the foster care system, and become incarcerated.[1] Children of incarcerated mothers are at particularly high risk of incarceration.[2] And while California provides services to incarcerated mothers to maintain connections with their children, there is a significant risk that women will still lose custody of their children while serving their sentences.

California counties have a unique opportunity to reduce the harm incarceration has on women and their children by keeping families together. Realignment provides counties with broad discretion, and counties are already diverging in their approaches to crime. While many counties are using “more of the same” policies and prioritizing jail expansion, others are developing innovative responses to crime. San Francisco, for example, is using alternative-to-incarceration options including electronic monitoring, parenting classes, and transitional housing. These non-incarceratory responses offer several distinct benefits to mothers and counties: 1) Mothers are able to continue living with and/or caring for their children, and fewer children enter the foster care system; 2) appropriate alternative programming can better meet the needs of women than incarceration, thus reducing recidivism; and 3) alternatives are less expensive and more effective than incarceration.

It remains to be seen if counties will prioritize the unique needs of women convicted of committing crimes. But exercising leadership to develop gender- and family-responsive alternatives to incarceration programs will strengthen families, save money, and reduce crime.

 



[1] Dallaire, D. H. (2007). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family Relations, 56(5), 440–453.

[2] Ibid.