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Kentucky Youth Advocates brief addresses impact of maternal incarceration, offers possible solutions

A new Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children issue brief released by Kentucky Youth Advocates, Data Trends and Policy Recommendations to Address the Impact of Maternal Incarceration on Kentucky’s Children, shows that the number of women incarcerated has grown at an alarming pace in Kentucky in recent decades and that women incarcerated are more likely to be a parent. The brief highlights the prevalence of parental incarceration in Kentucky, the impact maternal incarceration has on children, and the state policy and practice changes that could hold parents accountable for their actions in ways that allow them to continue to care for their children and become successful contributors to society.

“Parental incarceration has been referred to as a ‘shared sentence’ because of the profound impact it has on their children, those who step in to care for their children, and the broader community. Unfortunately, in Kentucky more than one in 10 children have had a parent separated from them due to incarceration—the 3rd highest rate in the nation,” said Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “To minimize the impact on children, Kentucky needs a system of justice that holds people accountable while reserving incarceration for those who pose a flight risk or risk to public safety.”

In Kentucky from 1988 to 2016, the number of women in prison increased by over 1,000 percent and from 1985 to 2018, the number of women in jail increased by over 700 percent, both outpacing national increases. This growth is especially concerning as, prior to incarceration, children are more likely to have lived with their mother and often must experience new living arrangements such as with family, friends, or foster care, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the criminal justice and child welfare systems. Additionally, women who are state inmates are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug offense. Kentucky can take the pressure off already strained systems – such as the criminal justice and child welfare systems – by focusing on what works to address underlying addiction, so families and communities can heal and thrive.

“With the leadership of our partners at Kentucky Youth Advocates, VOA is focused on so many factors that are essential to promoting healthy Kentucky children and families. One vital goal for us in the coming year is reducing the number of women incarcerated in our Commonwealth, which is a key driver in family separation and out-of-home placements for young children. By providing comprehensive support and focusing on overcoming substance use disorder, we can keep more Kentucky families healthy and united,” said Jennifer Hancock, President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States.

While the data show some groupings of counties with higher rates, all parts of the state have children impacted by parental incarceration. Yet, rural counties have seen the greatest increase in the rate of incarceration of people with children in recent years. Additionally, rural and suburban counties had the highest percentages of incarcerated people whose primary offense was a drug offense, at nearly one in five.

“For families, incarceration is just as bad for children as it is for parents. When a mother is in prison, your child shares that sentence. The best solutions are not punishment – it’s working together to provide help early, find solutions, and keep families together,” Chaly Downs, graduate of VOA’s Freedom House Program in Louisville.

Kentucky’s persistently high rate of children impacted by parental incarceration urges scrutiny of current policies and practices to identify ways to reduce the impact and restore opportunity for all Kentucky children to thrive. The issue brief outlines key recommendations:

For parents who have committed a nonviolent offense and do not pose a risk to public safety, Kentucky can prioritize community-based solutions, like substance use treatment, parenting classes, vocational training, and educational services, over the punitive approach of incarceration.

Decisions about incarceration, specifically during the pre-trial process and at sentencing, should consider community-based alternatives for nonviolent offenses when the person is a child’s primary caregiver.

Parents and caregivers can support healthy relationships with the incarcerated parent, while prisons and jails can support those important parental bonds by offering family-friendly visitation policies and environments.

Kentucky can focus incarceration on those who pose a risk or a threat to public safety by updating the outdated dollar amount for what constitutes felony theft and ensuring bail amounts reflect ability to pay and seriousness of risk.

Kentucky can minimize the impact of parental incarceration upon release by establishing solutions for paying money owed so parents can use income they begin earning upon release to better provide for their children.

“Parental addiction can be traumatic for children and those who step up to care for them, and that trauma can deeply impact families if left untreated. Prioritizing treatment allows grandparents to be grandparents again, rather than the primary caretaker when mom’s away. It allows kids to be kids again, rather than worrying about what’s happening to mom or about their next foster home. And, importantly, it allows kids to have their mom back, stable and healthy,” said Brooks.

Read full Kentucky Youth Advocations Brief: Data Trends and Policy Recommendations to Address the Impact of Maternal Incarceration on Kentucky’s Children.

Kentucky Youth Advocates

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