Criminalizing poor parenting

I kept adding articles about this topic to my pending quick hits list until I decided this just needs it’s own post.  The degree to which state bureaucracies seem to be willing to criminally punish poor parents (i.e., those who cannot always find affordable, reliable child care) while working (or going to college class, etc.) is truly abhorrent.  Not to mention the willingness to totally destroy families all in the name of “best interests of the children.”  Best interests my ass.

First, Radley Balko.  Several disturbing examples you should read, but here’s his conclusions:

You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. (And I’m not at all convinced that three of the four stories were even mistakes.) The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.

It doesn’t benefit these kids in the least to give their parents a criminal record, smear their parents’ names in their neighborhoods and communities and make it more difficult for their parents to find a job.

Jessica Grose:

Debra Harrell, 46, let her 9-year-old daughter play outside alone at the park. The South Carolina child had a cellphone she could use to call her mother in case of emergency. On the girl’s third day alone at the park, someone asked her where her mother was. The girl said her mom was at work. (Harrell works at McDonald’s and didn’t want her daughter to have to sit inside the restaurant for hours on a beautiful summer day.) The result? Harrell was arrested for “unlawful conduct towards a child” and put in jail; her daughter is now in the custody of the department of social services.

Most commentators—save for a few busybodies interviewed by the local news who nattered on about the possibility of the child being abducted by a strange man, something that’s extremely rarethink that authorities went way too farin arresting Harrell. It angers me, as a citizen, to see the police overreach this way. How is it benefiting this child to be put in the custody of social services? And since I’m a parent, Harrell’s arrest scares me: How can I appropriately parent my child when doing something that seems relatively safe, if out of fashion, can get you arrested?

Connor Friedersdorf (longer excerpt, but spot-on):

The case is disturbing on several levels.

1) Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold. Honestly, it seems a bit young to me, but I don’t know the kid or the neighborhood, it doesn’t sound as though the mother had any great option, and as I didn’t give birth to the kid, support her, and raise her for 9 years, it isn’t my call.

2) By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

3) The state’s decision is coming at a time when it is suffering from a shortage of foster families, as well as a child protective services workforce so overwhelmedthat serious child abuse inquiries are regularly closed in violation of policy.

Perhaps most concerning of all are the surfeit of cases where child protective services censures parents for ostensibly jeopardizing a kid’s safety in a manner that is totally disconnected from any statistical realities about the actual dangers faced.

He then links to the excellent comments about what actually endangers children, which I linked to a few weeks ago.

And, finally, he follows up with another disturbing, harrowing story of a 35-year widow who’s children were taken away and subjected to awful experiences in various foster homes because she left her four 10 and under children home while she went to a college class.  And even if you think that is negligent parenting (a reasonable argument, but the full context matters), the idea that the state’s solution to this was actually in the best interests of the woman’s children is completely risible.

This is just all wrong.  Sadly, though, I do think it fits into Balko’s larger theme:

A couple of themes we explore here at The Watch are the increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions. A few examples from recent headlines show those themes intersecting with parenthood.

This simply needs to change.

Prosecutors want to prosecute

Really good NPR story about how a number of states are looking to overhaul their prison sentencing– especially unduly harsh drug sentencing– but prosecutors and jailers are pushing back.  Why?   First, because for some people, more prisoners equals more jobs and more money for law enforcement– forget considerations of justice and unnecessary human misery:

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they’ve made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana’s stiff penalties for possession of marijuana.

Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing…

“The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full … of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill,” she says.

The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls “the courthouse crowd” — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it’s understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

“So when you’re making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?” Mangham says.

Depressing.  And as for the DA’s, they are opposed because they like to extort/blackmail accused criminals with the harsh sentences:

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don’t. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and ’90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors’ hands when bargaining with defendants.

“For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone’s head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want,” says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Morrell was one of the sponsors of the marijuana sentencing reform bill that failed in Baton Rouge. He says one of the benefits of that reform would have been a reduction in the power of prosecutors to, as Louisiana courthouse slang puts it, “bitch” a defendant. A reference to Louisiana’s habitual offender law, it refers to a DA threatening to use past convictions — often for marijuana possession — to multiply the length of a defendant’s potential sentence…

John de Rosier, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, La., says “we have people all the time that we know have been involved in robberies, rapes and murders. We haven’t been able to prove our cases, but we’re in court with them for second-offense possession of marijuana. What do you think we’re going to do?”

That’s commonly referred to as “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s an argument that alarms sentencing reformers like Morrell.

“That level of discretion ought to be terrifying to people,” Morrell says. “If you cannot convict someone of a murder, of a robbery, whatever, the fact that you have a disproportionate backup charge to convict them anyway kind of defeats the purpose of due process.” [emphasis mine]

Morrell gets this exactly right.  Prosecutors don’t get to decide on their own somebody is guilty and they’ll make sure somebody gets way-too-many years in prison for a drug possession charge because they don’t actuallyo have enough evidence for the crime they think the accused is guilty of.  That’s a complete violation of basic standards of justice.

It is great to see conservatives and liberals coming together to reform our absurd sentencing laws when it comes to drugs.  But frustrating to see the attachments to injustice that stand in the way.

Photo of the day

A really cool photo gallery in TNR of all places.  Photos taken at midnight in the Arctic during the summer:

Carolyn Marks Blackwood/Alan Klotz Gallery

Less testosterone = better government?

Quite honestly, probably so.  There’s plenty of good research that women legislators are better at compromise and working with colleagues.  And boy do we see the effects of a testosterone-fueled pissing match in NC’s current intra-party budget debate.  Rob Christensen:

Having covered North Carolina legislatures since the 1970s, I have come to the conclusion that budget negotiations could be resolved much more quickly with one simple solution.

No one should be allowed to participate in the budget negotiations unless they are wearing makeup and heels. That is, men should be barred from budget negotiations and replaced by women.

I come to this conclusion after following the House-Senate budget negotiations last week in which the Senate walked out and in which there were threats made to stay until Christmas.

This is the sort of mau mauing/so’s-your-mama/I’m-prepared-to-wait-till-hell-freezes-over posturing that is the norm in budget negotiations in Raleigh, no matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in control. And it is relatively mild when compared to the government shutdown shenanigans of Washington.

Much of this is being fueled by testosterone – the natural male drive to prevail, to show off, to engage in competition, to heckle or even humiliate the opponent and to never back down. It is sometimes said that sports and politics are male substitutes for battle. It is no wonder that one of the fastest growing sales of drugs is testosterone creams…

But exasperating the policy differences are male egos and questions about political power and will. House Speaker Thom Tillis wants to make his points in his U.S. Senate bid. Gov. Pat McCrory wants to show that he is his own man. And Senate leader Phil Berger doesn’t want to give up control of the conservative revolution. Last year they were arguing over who was the baddest, toughest conservative hombre in town.This year, they are arguing over who can give teachers the biggest raise.

Women, of course, have egos. But they are much more likely to set aside their differences and sensibly work out a compromise – which is what will eventually happen anyway when everybody gets tired of the posturing.

Now, this is Christensten’s non-empirical impression, but the truth is nobody knows NC politics better and, like I said, it is actually backed up in the abstract by PS research.  This article was also shared on FB by a female reporter I know who has commented time and time again abut just what a poisonous, frat-boy atmosphere, has existed in the legislature under both parties.  Though, it should be noted that Republicans re-districted out a bunch of Democratic women and that Republican leadership is especially noteworthy for a paucity of prominent women (and not just in NC).

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