Every time a parent is sent to prison, a child becomes more likely to end up there as well.

They become more likely to end up homeless, too, or to grow up without the educational and emotional development necessary to succeed, or to be hampered by health problems.

But in that moment, kids are too often forgotten. Instead, they are sent down a challenging road with little help, and often come out at a dead end.

This session, Maine legislators have an opportunity to put those children front and center. They can make sure fewer parents are incarcerated, and that the ones who are get an opportunity to stay connected to their children.

Thousands of children would benefit. A new report from researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that more than 3,400 Maine children had a parent incarcerated in a state prison at some point in the last five years. About 300 of those children were under the age of 5 — a particularly bad time for a child to be without at least one of their parents.

And that report does not tell the whole story. It does not include parents who were released from prison before 2015, and it does not include data from jails, probation or the juvenile justice system.

A separate study in 2016 found that in 2011-12, roughly 20,000 Maine children had at least one parent imprisoned at some point in their childhood — the highest rate in New England and the 14th highest nationally.

By taking away a parent, the justice system puts each of these kids in a bad spot. Parental incarceration is a source of great trauma in a child’s life. That and other adverse experiences in a child’s formative years cause stress that inhibits development and is linked to myriad future troubles and health problems.

The effect on kids in Maine has only worsened in recent years as more women than ever are being incarcerated, often taking a mother away from her child.

There’s a better way. Most of those women are in prison for drug- or economic-related offenses. Many men too. Alternatives to incarceration should be the default. Financial supports and access to education and employment opportunities, and to substance abuse treatment are critical to keeping them out of jail.

If incarceration cannot be avoided, incarcerated parents need to remain involved in their child’s life as much as possible. Visitation, virtual and otherwise, should be routine, as should participation in teacher meetings, celebrations and other important dates in a child’s life.

Upon release, these Mainers need support for housing, transportation and child and health care so that their place in the community is stable.

The Legislature will have opportunities this session to make some of these changes. Lawmakers will review bills that would reduce arrests and the length of sentences, including one that would decriminalize drug possession. Another would take funding from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and put it toward drug treatment.

All of those could lower the number of parents who are incarcerated.

Another bill, from Republican Rep. MaryAnne Kinney of Knox, would lower the cost of phone calls in Maine jails and prisons. The average cost of a 15-minute call is about $5, a barrier to parents trying to spend time talking to their kids.

Debate over these bills and others will likely focus on adults involved, from the perpetrators of crime, to the police officers, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

But there are children involved too, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.