Incarceration Separates Families

Looking for consistent application of principles in American politics is perhaps like Diogenes’s famous quest for an honest man: good luck with it. But to someone whose political mantra for the past few decades has been “maybe we shouldn’t be putting people in cages over that”, the outrage over the separation of migrant families who enter the country illegally is interesting.

This may be an important teachable moment: criminal laws put people in cages, and in so doing separate families.

Photo by Josh Estey via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.0

This is something that has affected me personally. When our grandfather died, my brother was in jail for a probation violation over a DUI charge. While he was released for a day to attend the funeral, he was not able to visit our grandfather on his deathbed. He was not able to support my mother as she dealt with the hostility of her father’s second wife, who tried to shut us out.

Of course the trauma of this was orders of magnitude less than a young child being separated from their parents. But even such parental separation is an everyday occurrence, here in the nation that has led the world in incarcerating its citizens for decades.

When we put people in jail or prison, some of them will be parents. And some of the kids they leave behind will not have another parent available to look after them; about 10% of mothers and 2% of fathers incarcerated in state prisons end up with their kids in foster care or otherwise under the care of the state.

So every time you advocate for more criminal laws — laws against drug possession, laws against gun ownership, laws against being or hiring a sex worker, laws against saying “I hate you and everyone like you” to the wrong person — you are advocating for parents to be torn away from their children.

Maybe we should be very reluctant to do that. Maybe we should reserve criminalization and incarceration for actions that directly threaten the safety or rights of others. Maybe we shouldn’t use criminal laws to “send messages”, whether the message is “we’ve hit tilt on immigration, don’t come here” or “drugs are bad, don’t use them” or “hate speech is vile, don’t say it”.

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