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In the twenty-seven nations of the European Union, whose combined population exceeds ours by nearly two hundred million, the total prison population for all crimes combined is around six hundred thousand. In the US, we’ve got almost that number of people – five hundred thousand to be precise — in prison for drug related crimes alone. And many of these crimes involve no violence whatsoever. That’s a lot of people. And it costs a lot of money. The states spent almost fifty billion dollars on incarceration in 2007. That’s up from ten billion in 1987 – adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of a hundred twenty-seven percent.
This is even worse when you realize that much of that growth in prisons has been for minor drug offenses, linked to mandatory minimum sentences, and to parole violations for minor drug offenses. We have treated prisons like the military: as a state function we fund no matter what, and no matter how much expansion they require. And it’s coming home to its budget roost.
For many mothers, however, incarceration for a drug-related crime results in the termination of parental rights. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, states initiate the termination of parental rights proceedings if a child has been placed in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. According to a study released by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the median prison sentence for women is 60 months, meaning the majority of mothers in prison lose their parental rights. Many of these broken families are a direct result of the war on drugs, as almost three quarters of the women incarcerated in federal prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Even after a mother is released from prison, she faces reentry challenges such as bans on access to food stamps, public housing, and student aid for individuals with drug convictions. These restrictions inhibit her ability to reintegrate into society, and maintain a stable and nurturing environment for her children.
Not to mention how difficult it can be to find work, and in some states/cities you can’t even rent an apartment with a criminal record.
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