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Parenting from prison: The collateral damage of harsh mandatory sentences

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Stephanie Nodd always wanted to be a mother.

Growing up around Mobile, Ala., she had a lot of nieces around her mom’s house.

“They were always messing with their hair,” she said. “I told myself, 'when I have kids, I want a boy.' No hair to mess with.”

She had a few other ideas about parenting. She’d work if she had to, like the women who raised her, but she wanted to stay home. Then she developed a few ideas she regrets. She became “overprotective,” she said, and did not want to depend on anyone, not even a man.

And so by 20 she was raising four boys on her own. Looking back, she says, she knows that was a mistake. It wasn't her only one.

By the time she was 22 she was in prison.

Each night, staring at the blank walls of her cell, she fell asleep thinking of home, worrying about her kids. She would exercise hard and go to sleep late, so there was less time to lay awake in pain.

"I cried a lot in the shower,” she said. “I would walk the track and cry. Christmas time was hard, and so was their birthdays.”

She took comfort in the fact that they were well cared for. The three oldest boys were sent to live with her mother. The fourth went to live with his dad and paternal grandmother. Stephanie’s sister took in the newborn, a little girl named Jasmineh, born after Stephanie entered prison.

Edge of a wave

Stephanie and her kids were on the edge of an incarceration wave that pulled in thousands of parents and hundreds of thousands of children at the end of the last century. In 1991 there were 936,500 minor children with a parent in state or federal prison. By the end of 1999, there were 1,498,800, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — more than a 50 percent leap in less than a decade.

That change can be traced back to the advent of “mandatory minimums,” which dramatically changed how judges doled out prison terms. Prior to mandatory minimums, judges were expected to weigh circumstances when they issued sentences, including past offenses and the likelihood of re-offending.

But by the late 1980s, legislators and the public were fed up with rising crime rates, including the crack epidemic that ravaged American inner cities. Lawmakers began removing discretion in sentencing from judges’ hands, and by 1994 — when California voters passed the state’s famous three strikes law — state and federal mandatory minimum sentences had reached to an ever-wider array of offenses with ever-harsher penalties.

It took years for the impact of this policy shift to become evident. Year by year, the American prison population burgeoned, far outstripping any other country in the world. Corrections expenditures skyrocketed, putting a strain on state finances, and prisons became overcrowded.

Meanwhile, some began to take note of unforeseen effects on kids and families.

“U.S. crime policy has, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and probably reduced the life chances of their children,” Christopher Wildeman of Yale University and Bruce Western of Harvard University argued in a 2010 study.

Mandatory minimums still have defenders, of course. Some view them as necessary for law enforcement investigations. Others credit them with crime rates across the U.S. now at near record lows. And the current rules enjoy the awesome force of inertia in American politics.

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