Our state leads the nation in percentage of children who have had an incarcerated parent. That should shock Kentuckians into action: Children affected by a parent’s imprisonment need more support. And Kentucky must develop alternatives to locking up so many of its people.
Nationally, 7 percent of children — more than 5.1 million — have experienced parental incarceration.
Kentucky’s rate is almost double that — 13 percent or 135,000 young Kentuckians have been left behind by a parent going to prison or jail. The next closest is Indiana at 11 percent, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.” The data come from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health.
In 2011, Kentucky enacted criminal justice reforms to decrease the prison population and steer more non-violent offenders into treatment for substance abuse.
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But the incarcerated population has not declined as expected and is, in fact, rising after leveling off. The costs of locking up so many Kentuckians are huge — in tax dollars, wasted lives and communities torn apart.
A broad coalition called Kentucky Smart on Crime successfully worked in the just-ended legislature for a felony expungement law that will help ex-offenders gain jobs and support their families. The group should keep pushing for criminal justice reforms, such as those in House Bill 412, which moved out of the House with bipartisan support but lacked time to make it through the Senate.
Gov. Matt Bevin’s Justice Secretary John Tilley, an architect of the 2011 changes, makes the case for further reform, telling CN2 that if Kentucky were a country it would have the world’s seventh-highest incarceration rate.
“Research shows that the incarceration of a parent can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence. Yet while states spend heavily on corrections, few resources exist to support those left behind,” says the report, which includes a range of recommendations from strengthening family connections to creating pathways to employment for ex-offenders. Some recommendations could be carried out locally and by non-governmental groups.
Kentucky has almost 8,000 youngsters in foster care, a record high. Almost 53,000 are living with relatives, who since the Kinship Care program was frozen in 2013 may not qualify for $300 monthly stipends. Foster care for a child costs the state $700 a month and often much more.
The new state budget does nothing to restore Kinship Care to new recipients but the administration should look for ways to fully fund the program. Supporting children in their families is cheaper in the long run than any of the alternatives.