Mothers in prison

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(Host) What most mothers wanted for Mother’s Day was time with their children. Yet, as commentator Cheryl Hanna reminds us, not all moms this past Sunday had reason to celebrate.

(Hanna) For a growing number of moms in America, and especially in Vermont, this past Mother’s Day was marked by time – without their children.

While the Legislature is busy debating medical marijuana, there’s another problem with our drug policy that’s not in the headlines but is even more compelling. The number of women incarcerated in Vermont prisons has tripled in the last five years, from 44 in 1998 to almost 130 today. Nationally, there are close to 100,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and 75 percent of those women are mothers. This past Mother’s Day, 200,000 children couldn’t bring their moms breakfast in bed.

Unlike men, who are most often incarcerated for violent crime, 85 percent of women in prison are there because of drug-related offenses. Most have been abused, and the drug-use is a way to self-medicate. To make matters worse, not only are we locking up women essentially for being addicts, but we’re also taking away their children forever.

Under a federal law passed in 1997, states are required to move to sever a parent’s right after a child has spent 15 months in foster care. Many moms who spend just a little more than a year behind bars end up losing their children. That is the worst punishment of all.

Now, I’m not arguing that some moms don’t deserve to be in prison, or that some children aren’t better off with foster families, but the rate at which we are incarcerating women, and the reasons we’re doing so, simply can’t be justified.

The Vermont Department of Corrections is often blamed for problems with the criminal justice system, but in this case it inherited the problem. In fact, the DOC understands the futility of incarcerating low-risk women offenders and is taking a hard look at how it can better serve women inmates.

Unfortunately, however, the rest of the system isn’t so enlightened. I’ve heard story after story of over-zealous prosecutors trumping up charges against women – and judges giving women sentences far harsher than is necessary to protect the public. And mandatory minimum sentences only make matters worse. In fact, women in Vermont and nationwide systematically receive harsher sentences than do men for the same crimes.

With few treatment options available for most addicts, never mind programs that are gender-specific, jail becomes not the last resort, but the only option. The result is that it’s children who end up being the most poignant casualties in the war on drugs.

I know many politicians are worried about the messages children get about drugs. But if we really cared about kids, we’d start caring about what’s happening to their mothers.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a law professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

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