Susan Burton: This Mother’s Day, let’s commit to policies to help mothers behind bars and their families

This Mother’s Day many of us will be fortunate enough to celebrate the person who brought us into this world. But for millions of families, the empty seat at Sunday brunch will be a painful reminder that our criminal justice system tears countless children from their mothers’ arms every year. This is a terrible injustice that affects us all.

Having cycled in and out of custody for more than 20 years of my life, I have witnessed the ways in which mass incarceration wreaks havoc on families and women in particular. It’s why I created A New Way of Life, a reentry organization helping formerly incarcerated women rebuild their lives. It’s also why every Mother’s Day A New Way of Life honors incarcerated mothers, their families and the community at large by sharing how our criminal justice system has left these women and their children behind–and by asking you to join us to do something about it.

It’s no secret that fractured families create trauma that reverberates across our communities for generations. Children lose so much when they don’t have their parents, and that leads to a predictable result: Intergenerational cycles of incarceration and higher rates of recidivism. Today, over half of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers. The heartbreak that is inflicted on them and their families is staggering. When mothers are imprisoned, their children are often left without a primary caregiver. Family separation due to a parent’s incarceration has impacted over 5 million children and has profound negative impacts on a child’s well-being including poverty, homelessness, unemployment and academic underachievement. In addition, incarcerated mothers are five times as likely to have their children placed in foster care and are more likely to have their parental rights terminated due to incarceration than fathers.

To make matters worse, our addiction to jails and prisons has severe economic consequences that affect us all. As research shows, people who have been incarcerated face significant financial consequences that impact families for decades. A lack of generational wealth, reduced wages, and chronic homelessness perpetuates high poverty rates that destabilize our communities.

But there is hope on the horizon.  Last month, Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles, introduced the Women in Criminal Justice Act. The act would allow parents and guardians to make arrangements for their children at the time of arrest, reducing the likelihood a child would be immediately placed into foster care. The act would also expand pretrial diversion opportunities for pregnant people, protect visitation privileges and expand access to and promote awareness of programs that allow pregnant mothers who are incarcerated in federal institutions to live with their newborns.

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Helping the formerly jailed get back on their feet

With more than 90% of incarcerated women being in state prisons and local jails, state lawmakers must act if we’re going to turnaround this dynamic. Last year, California State Assemblymember Isaac Bryan successfully authored legislation that removes barriers to family reunification for children in foster care. This year, Assemblymember Matt Haney has authored the Keep Families Close Act, which would ensure parents are incarcerated in the facility closest to their children. Similarly, Assemblymember Tina Mckinor has authored AB 937, which would bolster family reunification services for parents.

Supporting relationships between mothers and their children is not only the moral thing to do; it’s also a public safety imperative. As maintaining family connections during incarceration can help reduce recidivism and support positive outcomes for both mothers and their children alike.

So as we celebrate our mothers this weekend, let us remember the thousands of moms who are struggling to keep their families together in the face of immense challenges. Let us work together to support these mothers and their families and to rectify injustices that cause irreparable harm to mothers, their children and our entire community.  You can be a part of the solution by contacting your state representatives and members of Congress to ask them to get behind efforts that support incarcerated mothers and their children.

Susan Burton is the founder of A New Way of Life, a nationally renowned reentry organization that supports formerly incarcerated women.

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