Earlier this year, Pennsylvania's Joint State Government Commission published an extensive report titled "The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Needs and Responsive Services." The report was the result of two years of study by a 38-member advisory committee, with representatives from a variety of community and faith-based agencies, school districts, local government, state probation and parole, and PA Departments of Corrections, Aging and Public Welfare, among others. Lancaster's own Jean Bickmire, Legislative Director for Justice & Mercy, and Cheryl Holland-Jones, Executive Director of Crispus Attucks Community Center, served on the advisory committee.
"My son was 3 years old when I went to prison. He was 16 when I came out," Sandra Johnson, CEO and Founder of Kon-nectingservices, Inc, told the audience at Lancaster's first "Children of Incarcerated Parents Awareness Conference" last Friday.
Sandra shared moving stories of her personal experience as a mother in prison, and her son, Danny, now 27 years old, spoke about his experience as well, growing up without his mother. Fortunately, their story has a happy ending, and both Danny and Sandra have been deeply involved in helping children of incarcerated parents and their families in Lancaster County through after school and summer camp programs run by Kon-nectingservices.
But for the estimated three million American children who have an incarcerated parent, life is full of challenges. In Lancaster County, while there are no official figures, it is estimated that at least 1500 local children have a parent who is in prison or jail, and thousands of others have a parent who is on probation or parole . . .
A new report by the Pew Center on the States reports that prison sentences have lengthened dramatically in the past 20 years, costing states millions of additional dollars. Yet, the report says, "For a substantial number of offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime."
According to the Pew research, in Pennsylvania, "The average offender released in 2009 served 32% more than the average offender released in 1990" at a total added cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers of $316.6 Million. Length of time served by PA's violent offenders grew 44% between 1990 - 2009, and length of time served by PA inmates charged with drug offenses also grew 44% in that same time period. As of 2009, Pennsylvania also had the second longest average length of time served in the US.
Last week, Governor Corbett signed Senate Bill 100 into law. The new law puts into place some, but not all, of the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a bipartisan panel of judges, lawmakers, state cabinet members and other officials that has been studying ways to increase public safety in Pennsylvania and reduce spending on corrections.
Provisions of the new law include:
* diversion of nonviolent offenders with substance abuse issues to local treatment programs instead of sending them to state prisons
* elimination of the pre-release program for state prison inmates (the pre-release program allowed inmates with good disciplinary records to be moved to halfway houses prior to their parole)
* diversion of illegal immigrants who commit nonviolent crimes to immigration authorities rather than sending them to state prisons
Key recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment working group were not included in the new legislation, including a process for returning some of the savings realized from the other changes to local jurisdictions, though legislators may revisit this when the legislative sessions resumes this fall.
On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in mid-June, I boarded the #8 bus in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, and headed south on Halsted Street to Garfield, where I switched to the #55. Twenty blocks later, I exited the bus in the heart of Englewood, one of Chicago's poorest and most desolate neighborhoods . . .