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  • Isaac LaGrand

Incarceration Separates Families



The separation of children from their parents at the American border is rightfully gaining attention around the country. While none of this attention needs to be turned away, it is important to note that many children in the US are also needlessly separated from their parents by our criminal justice systems. We can do something about that. Read economist Tyler Cowen's piece about this in Bloomberg yesterday, titled "American Families Shouldn't be Separated, Either."


10% of children in Michigan have had a parent in prison. This has huge costs, as you would expect. Children with parents in prison are more likely to drop out of school, suffer mental health problems, and become incarcerated themselves.


Children in Michigan often have an incredibly hard time visiting incarcerated parents. People are often held in prisons far from where they live. For instance, many prisoners from Southern Michigan are held in the Upper Peninsula. Michigan children whose incarcerated parents have joint custody rights are often barred from visiting their parents, even if both parents and the child want the visits, because judges rule that prisons are too stressful for children.


There are many things to be changed here, but fundamentally to solve this we need to reduce our dependence on incarceration. Much of our use of incarceration has no public safety benefit and comes with huge social costs, like the separation of children from parents.


We should not be any less concerned about children separated at the border than we are. We should note however that if we are consistent about that concern then we need to think about the children suffering in our country as well. Cowen put this point well in closing his column:


"I don’t mean to normalize the current treatment of illegal immigrant families — I consider it a moral disgrace. What I am saying is that our treatment of outsiders is rarely an accident, and it so often mirrors how we have been treating each other all along. That is yet another reason to be nicer to those who are most vulnerable."

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