Friday, June 16, 2017

This Father’s Day, Think About the Empty Seats

By Keith Wallington
JPI State Based Strategist

Remember your first great achievement as a child? Was it your first talent show or dance recital? First little league hit, basket made, or goal scored? Think back to that moment. What made it so special? Who was there? There’s no better affirmation of a child’s achievement than a parent’s approval. 

Remember the excitement? Now imagine that seat in the audience being empty, and the hurt and disappointment that follows. That empty seat is a reality for too many kids across the country due to the justice system’s devastating impact on families and communities. The residual effect of the justice system’s disproportionate impacts on people and communities of color are reflected in those empty seats. One in four black children is at risk of having an incarcerated parent compared to one in thirty white children.  

This Father’s Day, remember all the fathers who have been separated from their children as a result of the justice system. Many acknowledge that the United States’ system of slavery was so terrible because of the beatings, mutilations and overall inhumane physical treatment of slaves. However, the cruelest part of slavery for many slaves in the U.S. didn’t lie in the inhumane physical treatment, but rather, the separation of families. There is no greater pain or loss than a parent being separated from their child, and the separation of families now routinely happens under the cover of the justice system. The impact cannot be overstated. As a coach for my son’s basketball and baseball teams I see and feel the reality of those empty seats. I can tell within the first practice which of my players does not have a father figure in their lives. There is a difference. You can see it. You can feel it. And the kids certainly can, too. 

The void the justice system creates by removing so many fathers in poor communities of color creates a ripple effect that is felt throughout the entire community. While at the Justice Policy Institute over the past seven years, I’ve worked on these important issues in communities around DC, Maryland and Virginia. I also live in Maryland, where blacks make up 29% of the overall population but about 72% of the prison population. This disproportionate impact of the justice system on black males has devastated entire communities and left voids that are filled by gangs and others who try to take advantage of the absence of strong parental figures. If we want to create a better future for our kids, we must begin by altering the trajectory of many fatherless kids by investing in them, and healing their communities. 

According to The Right Investment, a report by the Justice Policy Institute, the Maryland community where the justice system spends the most money incarcerating residents is Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was from. Taxpayers spend $17 million a year incarcerating residents from this one community alone. But when you look at the indicators of a healthy neighborhood, such as employment, education, housing, and treatment services, you then see that Sandtown has the highest unemployment rate, highest percentage of people without a high school diploma, the highest number of abandoned houses, and highest rate of emergency narcotic calls to 911. Sandtown also has one of the highest percentages in Baltimore of female-headed households with children under 18 (at 79.2%), compared to the city average of 54.4%. So, while it cost $37k a year to incarcerate someone in Maryland, that same $37k could provide drug treatment for 8 people, employment training for 7 people, and a GED course for 37 people in impacted communities. In communities deeply impacted by the justice system, it becomes clear where investments are needed and why so many children are without fathers due to incarceration, instead of receiving the support they need.

As JPI celebrates its 20th anniversary year, I reflect on the work we’ve done towards reducing the impact of the justice system, with most of my focus on communities around the DMV. We know that there is a whole generation of missing fathers, an Incarceration Generation, and much more reform that needs to be done towards creating safer, stronger communities. 

Rather than targeting resources towards locking up so many black men, states and the federal government could invest more wisely and preserve the family structure, rather than continue to spend enormous amounts of money in the justice system that results in the mass separation of family. We can and must do better!  Instead of rendering so many black children fatherless, it’s time to work on healing and strengthening communities through smart, targeted investments that result in diplomas, not criminal records. 

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