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Column

With families in mind, reform criminal justice laws

Children pay the price when parents offend

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

There is no more depressing place to be than in a prison visiting room when children come to see their mom or dad.

During my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve found myself in many state prisons waiting to interview inmates. Watching youngsters run across a room to hug a father or mother they haven’t seen for months is heart-rending.

Thirty years ago, I spent Mother’s Day in a women’s prison working on a feature on the children of the incarcerated. The children visiting their mothers that day wanted the same thing all kids want: love and attention.

Unfortunately, with a parent behind bars, attention is hard to come by.

There may be some hard-hearted souls out there who say, “Who cares? These people committed a crime, and they deserve to suffer.”

But here’s the deal: Their children didn’t commit a crime. And they, too, are suffering.

In recent days, a lot of attention has been paid to what is happening on the Mexican border. The abhorrent policies being pursued by the federal government have resulted in many shattered immigrant families.

What is happening there is tragic and wrong, a national shame.

I am in no way trying to create a “yardstick of pain,” comparing the suffering of one group to another. Any time a child is separated from a parent, it is heartbreaking.

But this tragic situation highlights the problems with forcibly separating parents and children.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are some violent people who belong behind bars. But this nation locks up entirely too many people. In fact, we lock up a higher percentage of our citizens than any other country.

“It’s taking a financial, emotional and societal toll,” says state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the leading criminal justice reform advocate in the Illinois General Assembly.

The Chicago Democrat knows the pain incarceration brings to families all too well. Her sister and two nephews have been locked up on drug charges.

“It’s critical that families be kept intact. When inmates leave prison, they need a support system that will keep them from reoffending,” she said.

Not only that, but the kids benefit from continuing the relationship.

Perhaps the best option for fostering these parental bonds is to reduce the number of people being incarcerated.

For many, mental illness has contributed to minor brushes with the law. For some, community-based mental health care may be an appropriate option. For others who have committed non-violent offenses, in-home detention may be a worthwhile alternative.

And let’s face it, we live in a nation that has too many laws on the books.

The Wall Street Journal has cited the work of Boston civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who contends the average American unwittingly commits three felonies a day because of vaguely written laws. 

It’s time Illinois addresses meaningful criminal justice reform, if not for the incarcerated, for their families.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions.

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