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You Punish a Child When You Lock Up Her Mom

Most Americans take for granted the idea that they will succeed more than their parents did. But recently many studies have shown that Americans are not as socially mobile as their European counterparts. Nowhere are the consequences of that immobility so stark than in the criminal justice system.

Our newest short documentary, Vanessa’s Eight Year Sentence, follows a Bay Area teen with an incarcerated parent who is on the precarious edge of the system herself. When they took her mom away, Vanessa stopped caring. She acted out in school, got in trouble with the law, and ended up in a group home. By the time we met her, her mom only had a year left in her sentence, but Vanessa was one small mistake away from violating her probation and ending up in juvenile hall. Imagine the mother walking out of the walls of prison, only to see her child step in.

This cycle is one of the ways that incarceration becomes mass incarceration, where prison terms seem to be inherited from one generation to the next. Many of our documentaries have taught us that people caught up in the system have often been exposed to it early on, whether you run away from home in Oregon, or you follow your father’s path of addiction and incarceration in the Bronx.

There is way more to the story than "do the crime, do the time". Vanessa's mom was convicted of selling drugs and she had prior arrests. Having kids doesn’t grant you clemency in the eyes of the law, but it does mean that when we design a punishment for the parent, we automatically punish the child. 

The latest numbers from the Feds tell us that we locked up 744,200 fathers and 65,600 mothers as of midyear 2007. We know that number has gone up and we know two-thirds of prisoners are in for non-violent offenses.

There are solutions. For Vanessa’s mom, there’s no reason that ankle monitoring, daily check-ins or other alternatives to incarceration could be used as punishment instead of her eight year long incarceration. Don’t take our word it, these are exactly the solutions proposed by Rick Van Wickler, the superintendent of a prison in New Hampshire.

As Vanessa’s story shows, our harsh punishments come back to haunt us. Vanessa was lucky enough to get involved with Project WHAT, a bay area program that raises awareness for children of parents in jail and prison, the same program that helped Jazree, the subject of the recently released Jazree’s Court.

Vanessa will hopefully make it, stay out of juvie and be able to reunite with her mother later this year. But what about all the kids who don’t make it? Children with incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to end up behind the bars.

How much crime do we create by taking parents away?