Anyone familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system has likely heard the expression, “When a person gets sentenced to prison, the whole family serves the time.” Thanks to our nation’s harsh sentencing laws, lots of families are serving time.
The cost to the government of these “lock ’em up and throw away the key” policies, in terms of skyrocketing prison construction costs, is well documented. Less appreciated are the social, emotional and economic impacts these policies have on families.
I know them all too well.
In 1991, my younger brother was arrested, tried and convicted in federal court for his involvement in a conspiracy to sell marijuana. He introduced a marijuana buyer and a marijuana grower and was paid one time for making the connection. His codefendants continued buying and selling marijuana. When they were arrested, they turned in my brother, who was also held accountable for all the marijuana they sold.
My mother and I were devastated. We knew he was not a bad person, but rather someone who had made some bad choices for which he would have to pay. Do the crime and pay the time, we were raised to believe. But our grief turned to anger when my brother, a first-time marijuana offender, was ordered to serve the rest of his life in prison, thanks to a one-size-fits-all, federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.
I confess I did not know anything about how criminal sentencing laws worked. After my brother was sentenced, I reached out to a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). I soon learned that my family was one of thousands dealing with the negative consequences of criminal punishments dictated by politicians in Washington, D.C., rather than local courts.
I also learned that mandatory-minimum sentencing laws do not take into account whether someone is a small-time drug user or a major trafficker. The “minimum” sentences they establish are chosen out of thin air and reflect nothing but Congress’ sense of what sounds “tough.”
The sentences are also far from “minimum.” If they were truly minimums, my brother never would have received a life sentence for a first-time marijuana offense.
Compared to most people sentenced to a mandatory minimum, my brother got lucky. He won his appeals and was released from prison after serving “only” 12½ years.
During those years, I learned that the saying is true: When a parent, sibling or child goes to jail, the whole family serves the sentence with that person. My brother made a terrible mistake, but he did not need to spend the rest of his life in prison to recognize that. It would have been a terrible waste of taxpayers’ money to shelter, feed and care for someone in prison who was not a threat to society and should have been working and paying taxes, which he does now.
I now work for FAMM full-time. I hear from families every day whose lives are turned upside down by mandatory-sentencing laws passed by Congress. A few years ago, a Pew Research Center study revealed that one in 28 children in the United States has a parent in prison or jail. That number represents an enormous increase from 25 years earlier when just one in 125 children had an incarcerated parent. This increase tracks the incredible growth in the overall prison population, an explosion driven in part by lengthy, mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes.
The saddest part about all these parents being in prison is the impact it has on their children. Pew found that children of incarcerated parents are much likelier to struggle in life. For example, a family with an incarcerated parent on average earns 22 percent less the year after the incarceration than it did the year before. In addition, children with parents in prison are significantly likelier to be expelled from school than others; 23 percent of students with jailed parents are expelled, compared to 4 percent for the general population.
I am not naïve. I recognize that people who commit crimes need to be punished. But the time should fit the crime. Excessive prison terms do not make us safer and, because of their impact on the families (especially the children) of the incarcerated, they might make us less safe.
I know more about our laws today than I did 20-something years ago—when my brother was sentenced. But the only thing I know for sure is that no family should have to suffer through the heartache, fear and pain that my family experienced.