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Report: Keep incarcerated parents and kids close

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Edwin J. Viera

recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative calls for better state laws to keep incarcerated parents close to their kids. It finds 12 states including New York have measures designed to improve a child's access to incarcerated parents, but not all of these laws have the same protections.

New York has a proximity law, which means there's a maximum distance allowed between a child and an incarcerated parent. While this does make in-person visits more accessible, Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, noted there are better ways to keep parents and kids together, and said caregiver mitigation laws can be more beneficial to parents facing prison time.

"Caregiver mitigation laws work by creating diversion programs that parents of children can go to instead of prison to serve their sentence," she said, "or, simply by authorizing judges to sentence people to those programs as opposed to prison if they are the primary caregiver of a child."

While these programs can be beneficial, Bertram said, the biggest challenge is ensuring there's sufficient funding for them. Lawmakers in Washington debated The FAMILIES Act in 2020 and 2021, which aimed to create a federal diversion program, but it failed to advance out of committee. 

2022 report from The Sentencing Project found that 2.7 million American children have a parent in prison. Almost twice as many have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. Outside of more funding for diversion programs, Bertram said community investments are needed to keep parents from ever being incarcerated in the first place.

"We need to invest heavily in the communities that are the most incarcerated communities in this state, and just make sure that parents don't get caught up in this system in the first place," she said, "because prison is not the answer for families that are being torn apart."

Bertram added that New York's geography can make its proximity law hard to enforce. The report from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that about 41 percent of prisoners in the state are from New York City. But most of the state's prisons are in Upstate New York, meaning parents and kids are separated by more miles than is ideal.