Study shows 312,000 Fla. children have parents behind bars

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Mass incarceration has led to 8 percent of children in Florida, 312,000 of them, seeing at least one parent put behind bars, according to a new study by FWD.us and Cornell University.

The Dec. 6 report, the first major study to focus on the impact of incarceration of U.S. families, finds nearly half of all Americans have an immediate family member who spent time incarcerated.

“We expected the numbers to be high, but we were very stunned to see the numbers this high,” said Zoë Towns, senior director of Criminal Justice Reform for FWD.us.

FWD.us describes itself as “a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when everyone has the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Ready to achieve your full potential? We’re looking for talented individuals to fill important roles in our organization.” Two of its founders include such household names as Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The study verifies an escalation in the number of Americans over the past 40 years to spend time behind bars. Now, the new data shows that out of 113 million adults living in the United States, one in seven have had a family member who served more than a year in jail or prison, and one in 34 had a loved one incarcerated for a decade or more.

Florida claims the 11th highest incarceration rate in the country, higher than every other country on earth. The study singles out the imposition of higher penalties for opioid possession passed in 2017 as legislation run amok.

Towns said she hopes the study opens policymakers eyes to the impact of jailing a substantial portion of the population on their loved ones.

“We are taking wealth out of families and communities,” Towns said. “The decision to send someone to prison has enormously high stakes for the family as well. But we are not taught in criminal justice or in courtrooms or in policymaking to think about the families of those incarcerated as a consideration.”

Of course, the study also shed some light on why 2018 marked the moment Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Act. That measure will automatically restore the voting rights of non-violent ex-cons in January.

Experts estimate some 1.6 million Floridians have returned to society stripped of the right to vote. Amendment 4 means 1.4 million of those individuals will soon return to the voting rolls.

“The conversations, in legislatures and ballot boxes, have taken a different tone,” Towns said.

But the study shows the deep impacts of mass incarceration outside of losing the chance to elect officials.

Researchers hope this study gets people thinking too, not just about well-documented problems like the inability of ex-cons to find a job, but also the impact that has on their children to be taken care of during the time of incarceration and afterward.

Unsurprisingly, the study shows mass incarceration impacts minority and low-income communities at a greater rate. For example, 62 percent of black Americans have been exposed to an immediate family member doing time, while just 42 percent of white Americans have faced the same thing.

That also introduces more destabilizing threats to families like having children removed from homes. And among these at-risk populations, time in jail brings a financial price to families as well.

“Poor people are disproportionately exposed and are poorer because of it,”

Roughly 65 percent of families in the study reported being unable to meet basic needs such as buying food, paying for housing and continued proper medical care during the time when a family member remains incarcerated.

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. He appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.

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