It’s not just moms and kids who benefit when mothers involved in the justice system are provided with opportunities to serve their sentences under community supervision. Public safety does too, according to a researcher at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
A little over a week ago, a tweet from Serena Williams about her daughter went viral, gathering over 112,000 likes and over 3,000 comments as parents across the world related to her words: “She took her first steps…I was training and missed it. I cried.”
While the American public heralds Williams as the queen of tennis, her emotional response reminds us of a different truth: When you’re a mom, being there matters regardless of your title.
For mothers such as Lavette Mayes, Williams’ tweet is painfully relatable.
Mayes missed multiple dance recitals and birthdays while incarcerated in a local jail for over a year in Cook County, Il. She shared the pain of her experience with Chicago Tribune reporters: “It was like birthing them again. I had never been away from them for that amount of time.”
Although Mayes has finally been reunited with her two children, routine departures from home still cause her children to become anxious and worry that she might not return. Both she and her children bear the pain of her prior absence.
Her story is not uncommon. The most recent estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that over 147,000 children had a mother incarcerated in a state or federal prison in 2007 – a 231 percent increase from 1991. When you include children with mothers incarcerated in local jails, such as in Mayes’ case, this number increases substantially. The latest counts show that over 99,000 women were incarcerated in local jails at the end of 2015, and almost 80 percent of these women are thought to be mothers.
Alternatives to incarceration ensure that moms don’t miss the monumental or mundane moments that are so important to both mom and child.
Thankfully, Washington state has acknowledged this problem and has made an effort to change these mothers’ situations. In 2010, the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) worked with other state agencies and the state legislature to formulate and pass two Parenting Sentencing Alternatives (PSAs); the Family and Offender Sentencing Alternative (FOSA) and the Community Parenting Alternative (CPA).
Similar in purpose to other programs such as drug or mental health courts, Washington’s PSAs were crafted with the specific needs of justice-involved mothers and fathers in mind—as well as their children.
Washington’s FOSA allows judges to sentence eligible parents to a year of intensive community supervision in place of their sentencing. Meanwhile, the Community Parenting Alternative allows eligible parents currently incarcerated to serve the last 12 months of their sentence at home under electronic monitoring and supervision. Both hold parents accountable for their actions while ensuring that the moments missed between parent and child are minimized.
Program results show that it’s not just moms and kids who benefit when a mom is home to see her baby take his or her first steps. Public safety does, too.
According to a fact sheet shared by Washington Department of Corrections staff, over 540 parents have successfully completed one of these programs, with only five percent of those who completed the FOSA program and 12 percent of those who completed the CPA program having since returned to prison on a new felony charge as of December 2017.
The average “return to prison” rate among those who completed the PSA program is a surprisingly low nine percent. While these statistics are not directly comparable to those regarding the general correctional population due to a different measure and timeline of recidivism, this data suggests extraordinary benefits for public safety.
Washington taxpayers are benefiting too. A year-long community-based alternative costs less than multiple years in a jail or prison. And when parents remain at home with their kids instead of returning to a cell, the savings only increase. Moreover, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that approximately 11 percent of incarcerated mothers have a child in the foster care system.
When mothers remain in the community, their kids do too, saving both taxpayer money and children from the additional collateral consequences of being a child in the foster care system.
These mothers may not be an Olympic medalist who missed a precious moment because of intense training. But these mothers are still missing important memories, and their children need them just as much.
Our criminal justice system must aim to hold people accountable in the most effective manner possible. This means remembering that many of the individual confined behind bars in our justice system are parents too, and reminding incarcerated mothers and fathers that a life without crime allows them to be around to see those precious first steps.
Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a justice policy associate at R Street Institute. She welcomes comments from readers.