With more than 2 million men and women held in U.S. jails and prisons, the need for criminal justice reform has become evident. But legislators disagree on what these reforms should look like. Some believe tough sentencing tactics — like mandatory minimums — must continue to keep communities safe. Many are driven by a desire to seem tough on crime to voters in an election season.

Other legislators recognize criminal justice reform is not complete without changes to how people are sentenced. Their position is supported by 70 percent of the U.S. public, who support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences to reduce prison populations, according to a 2017 American Civil Liberties Union poll.

The debate about criminal justice reform often centers on economics, crime statistics and racial disparities. Often forgotten are the families and children impacted.

Currently, 2.7 million children have incarcerated parents, according to Prison Fellowship. Many politicians may argue that even nonviolent and low-level drug crimes harm children in communities, but some fail to acknowledge that children with oversentenced parents may be harmed due to unjust policies.

To thrive, children need a safe and supportive environment. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, parental incarceration increases the risk of children living in poverty. They are also three times as likely to enter the criminal justice system than peers without incarcerated parents. Some children are placed in foster care, which can make it more difficult to remain in relationship with their families.

How can we promote safe communities and healthy relationships between children and parents?

We must address the root causes of many nonviolent and low-level offenses, such as poverty, drug addiction and mental illness. There is little public safety rationale for locking up the 39 percent of individuals who are in prison for low-level, nonviolent offenses. These individuals would be better served by alternatives such as treatment facilities, community service and job-training programs.

Proposed policies such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would give judges more discretion in terms of sentencing by eliminating mandatory minimums. SRCA would also allow incarcerated individuals who have been sentenced under mandatory minimums to have their cases revisited.

The Second Chance Act would help reduce recidivism by providing funding for re-entry processes. Legislation such as these two bills would help stabilize individuals who, in turn, could offer more stability to their children.

It is easy to be insensitive to those whose lives are directly affected by overincarceration. Political concerns and a false sense of fear can drive us away from finding sustainable solutions for individuals and their families.

Phil. 2:4 instructs us to notice the concerns of others in the same way we notice our own concerns. We must be committed to healing communities and families as we help to rebuild the lives of those impacted by the criminal justice system.

To learn more about the lives of children with parents in prison, encourage your school or church to show the When a Parent Is in Prison documentary and exhibit. Email exhibits@mcc.org for more information.


Cherelle M. Dessus is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the MCC U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on September 10, 2018. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review