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A Shared Sentence: KY Kids Suffer When Parents are in Prison

Kentucky has the second-highest rate of children who have a parent serving time. (Daniel Vanderkin/Pixabay)
Kentucky has the second-highest rate of children who have a parent serving time. (Daniel Vanderkin/Pixabay)
February 8, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Growing up with a mom or dad behind bars is a reality for almost 33,000 kids in Kentucky, and a report released today examines ways to reduce the impacts of parental incarceration on these children.

An issue brief from Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Blueprint for Kentucky's Children showed 3-in-5 people in state custody have children, including 71 percent of women. Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said incarceration tears families apart and traumatizes children.

"It is clearly a shared sentence,” Tilley said. “Just the interruption in care, the inability to meet basic needs, the lack of contact between the parent and child has an incredible impact on the kids and system. There's the human cost and then there's an incredible fiscal cost."

According to the brief, many parents who are behind bars are serving time for lower-level crimes. Tilley said criminal reforms are needed to help keep families whole, such as releasing those charged with low-level offenses before trial so parents can work and care for their children.

More than 60 percent of Kentucky women currently locked up are there for lower-level drug or property crimes. Tilley said those cases can be handled other ways.

"We can seek alternatives to preserve the bonds between mother and child. We can do better to maximize contact if someone does have to be incarcerated,” he said. “And certainly there are any number of ways that we can treat the problem with a public health approach rather than a criminal justice hammer."

An estimated 15 percent of children in Kentucky have experienced parental incarceration, which is the second-highest rate nationally.

Louisville Republican Julie Raque Adams, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said the Commonwealth has an obligation to make changes to criminal justice policies.

"Particularly when there's children involved, we have to be very sensitive to what we do, and we have to do better than how we're doing it now,” Raque Adams said. “So that's why this education piece of this report is vital to public policy makers moving forward on real reform."

Suggestions offered in the brief include focusing incarceration on those who pose a serious threat to public safety while expanding substance-abuse treatment in the community. The brief also recommends minimizing financial barriers that make it difficult for parents to support their children upon their release from prison.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - KY