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August 30, 2008 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: Tough On Crime Can Be Pretty Tough On Children

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

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How would Canada's criminal justice system look if conservatives fully transformed it? And more importantly, what would those changes do to Canadian society? With the Harper government pushing more tough-on-crime legislation, and preparing to dismiss the statistics and campaign on crime in the next election, these are important questions.

We got one answer this week.

The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of 2007, 1.7 million American children younger than 18 had a parent in a state or federal prison. That's 2.3 per cent of all American children.

"Since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131 per cent," the bureau states. "The number of children with a father in prison has grown by 77 per cent."

But even these numbers do not tell the whole story of what right-wing justice policies are doing to American families and neighbourhoods. For one thing, these statistics exclude county jails, which house one-quarter of America's 2.2 million prison population. They also obscure the fact that incarceration is concentrated in certain communities.

Hispanic children were more than two-and-a-half times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.

Black children were seven-and-a-half times more likely to have an incarcerated parent: Almost seven per cent of all black children have a parent in state or federal prison. Add in county jails and that figure is likely around 10 per cent.

Just try to fathom that. One in 10 black children has a parent behind bars at this moment. And how many had a parent locked up in the past? How many in the future? How many boys and girls will know what it feels like to talk to a mother or father through a plexiglass shield?

It is wonderful that a black man is now a serious contender for the presidency. It is horrifying that incarceration is as much a part of black childhoods as birthday cakes.

Of course we rarely think of prisoners as people, much less mothers and fathers. We think of them as criminals.

And we think of criminals as violent, anti-social, drugged-out, altogether nasty creatures.

As appalling as it may be to imagine all those children losing parents to prison, it's tempting to conclude it may be for the best. Imagine the harm these loathsome people could do to their children if they weren't safely locked away.

Every prisoner is different, of course, and there are undoubtedly cases in which this reasoning holds. But for the most part, it's nonsense built on nothing more than crude stereotypes and ignorance.

More than half of American prisoners with children were incarcerated for non-violent crimes. And plenty of incarcerated parents are not the deadbeats we may imagine.

One-third of fathers and almost two-thirds of mothers reported living with their children prior to being imprisoned. Three-quarters of incarcerated parents reported being employed at the time of their arrest and one-half of parents were the primary source of support for their children.

Seventy per cent exchanged letters with their children while in prison. Half spoke on the telephone.

Four in 10 had personal visits -- a figure which would undoubtedly be higher if it weren't for the widespread adoption of right-wing policies restricting prison visits and the construction of prisons in distant rural regions, which makes it hard for poor family members to see their loved ones.

And remember, all these numbers are skewed because county jails, which generally hold less-serious offenders, are excluded.

Of course, convicted criminals, whatever their crimes, are far from ideal parents. But mothers and fathers don't have to be June and Ward Cleaver to contribute to the development of a child. And even the loss of flawed parents can damage children in ways that last a lifetime.

One widely cited study found that the children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated. Granted, there are many factors involved in that conclusion other than the incarceration of the parent. But we have to realize that an incarcerated parent means a child who has lost a parent -- and that loss may be even more traumatizing than other forms of parental loss because it also comes with the deep stigma of having your mother or father declared a criminal.

Incarceration must always be a last resort; sentences must always be as short as justice and safety permit. If we go beyond these limits, if we embrace incarceration, if we see prisons as a magic cure for crime, if we make a fetish of punishment --as the United States has done over the last 30 years -- the damage to children and communities will be profound.

The transformation of Canadian justice sought by conservatives in this country comes entirely from the American playbook. If we want a country in which one in 10 aboriginal children has a parent in prison -- -- if we like the idea of more aboriginal children staring at mothers and fathers through plexiglass shields -- then we should copy that playbook.

If not, we must toss it aside and write our own.

Also visit our"Children Of War" section.

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