I once wrote mandatory minimum laws. After ties to Abramoff landed me in prison, I know they must end.
10 million children will lose a parent to incarceration. Judges must consider individual cases, not be forced to unnecessarily separate families
by Kevin Ring, Opinion contributor, USA TODAY, published October 16, 2018
Three months into my federal prison sentence, my cellmate Santos saw that I was struggling. I couldn’t stop thinking about my young daughters at home. I would imagine them getting ready for school, or watching TV on the couch, or playing basketball on the team I used to coach.
My eyes would fill with tears. Do your time in here and let them do theirs out there, Santos told me, in far more colorful language.
As a former Washington lobbyist who worked for Jack Abramoff, I was serving time for honest-services fraud and was facing more than a year in prison in Cumberland, Maryland — more than a year away from my kids.
“Your kids will be fine,” Santos said. “Keep your head in here or you will go crazy.”
I was reminded of Santos’ good advice when I had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of “The Sentence,” a moving documentary released this week on HBO that follows the lives of three girls after their mother, Cindy Shank, begins serving a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug conspiracy.
Although I have been home from prison for nearly four years, the movie brought me right back to the days when I would listen over a prison payphone as my oldest daughter performed a new song she learned on the piano.
Years before my time in Cumberland, I supported mandatory minimums. As a staffer on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s, I helped draft a new law that instituted mandatory minimums for people who sold methamphetamine. Back then, I thought prison and sentencing reform were problems that only plagued “others” — the bad people, the wayward children from broken homes, the criminal class.
I ended up serving time with people whose unnecessarily long sentences were caused by the laws I helped write.
Since my release, I've tried to call attention to the problems caused by excessive prison sentences and the lack of rehabilitative programming inside prison. And now that President Donald Trump has spoken in support of justice reform (last week he stated during a television interview that mandatory minimums are "very unfair right now. It's very unfair to African-Americans. It's very unfair to everybody. And it's also very costly.”), I will continue to urge Congress to pass commonsense sentencing and prison reform.
My two girls and Shank’s daughters are just a fraction of the 10 million children in America who will experience having a mother or father behind bars during their lifetime.
Obviously, parents who pose a threat to a child’s well-being should be removed. But it is equally clear that we send far too many parents to prison as a first resort instead of a last option. Nearly two-thirds of women in state prisons have minor child at home, according to the Sentencing Project.
My family was spared the worst. My sentence was relatively short, and I had more resources than most. In many instances, having a parent behind bars “massively strains family life, with cascading consequences for children,” according to professor Kristen Turney and Rebecca Goodsell of University of California-Irvine. Those family consequences can include economic hardship, an inability for the inmate to find work, separation and divorce.
We can and should take some simple steps to ease the burden on families, reduce the cost to taxpayers, and strengthen our communities overall.
First, we need to stop relying so heavily on prisons. There are other ways to hold people accountable that are more effective and cause less harm to innocent family members.
Where prison is necessary, we should allow courts to consider all the relevant facts and circumstances of a crime and an individual defendant, instead of being hampered by a mandatory minimum sentence. Too often today, judges’ hands are tied by one-size-fits-all laws and guidelines that were drafted by politicians who hoped to appear tough on crime.
Opponents of eliminating mandatory sentencing reflexively argue that reforms in this area will jeopardize public safety, but the opposite is true. Stronger families and stronger communities will lead to greater public safety.
Fortunately, many states have begun to reform their mandatory sentencing laws, and a growing bipartisan majority in Congress is considering legislation to do the same at the federal level.
Second, we must make it easier for families to stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones. I was lucky that my daughters were only a five-hour round-trip car ride away. Many parents are locked up so far away from their children that visits became rare if not impossible.
Citing budget and safety concerns, more prisons and jails now are cutting back on visiting hours, and some are replacing in-person visits with video visits. These policies are shortsighted and inhumane. Policymakers should be looking for ways to strengthen the bonds between incarcerated parents and their children. It’s the right thing to do from a moral perspective, and research suggests that maintaining family ties makes an individual less likely to become a repeat offender
In a country where approximately 70 million people have some type of criminal record — the same number of people who have a college degree — we need to be honest about the fact that there are no “others.” The incarcerated come from all kinds of families, churches and communities.
For everyone’s sake, we need to do better.
Kevin Ring is president of FAMM — formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
This article was originally published in USA TODAY on October 16, 2018, and reprinted with permission. Copyright, USA TODAY
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