Babies Behind Bars

Babies Behind Bars
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The motto of Correctional Service Canada is "futura recipere" - to grasp the future.

By providing retribution to victims and rehabilitating offenders, that's certainly what we're trying to accomplish. But, across the country, offenders enter prison, often bringing their children with them - maybe not now, but in their futures.

That's because children of offenders have an increased likelihood of becoming offenders themselves.

They say justice is blind - but sometimes too much so. While the parent is guilty of a crime, the child is the one punished. In the search for retribution, we end up creating more victims.

"That's where we start to ask, 'What's the alternative?'" says Shawn Bayes, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver. "Why incarcerate for small crimes when there is something better?"

Canada imprisons few compared to our southern neighbour. According to King's College London, the U.S. adult incarceration rate is 756 people per 100,000 compared to Canada's 116. However, ours is still one of the highest in the Western world.

In Europe - where incarceration counts all prisoners, not just adults - Germany, France and Sweden have rates of 88, 96 and 74 respectively.

"Before making the decision to incarcerate, we need to look at the best long-term outcome," says Bayes. "For the mother, that's often supporting her in making her a better mother. That's usually better for the child as well."

In recent years, Canada has become reliant on mandatory minimum sentences. But, alternative-to-incarceration options exist both here and around the world.

Intermittent sentences are one choice. Offered for prison terms less than 90 days, offenders report to jail for a specified time - usually weekends. Then, they are released on weekdays to maintain their current jobs. During the week, they are placed under strict probation. If found in violation, judges have the option to incarcerate

These sentences are widely used in New Zealand and in some U.S. states. South Africa has been known to use it for longer sentences. Canada uses it for some impaired driving charges. But, it could be a used for mothers.

While about 90 percent of children of incarcerated men live with their mothers, about two-thirds of incarcerated moms are sole caregivers. Over the last decade, their numbers have doubled but their crimes remain non-violent. B.C. Corrections reports 75 percent of women receive sentences less than 90 days for crimes like theft, fraud and sex work - crimes usually born out of poverty.

Community-based sentences are a second option and have proven successful in America. A program launched in New York City persuades judges to choose electronic monitoring, community service or house arrest. Then, non-profits offer job and parenting and programs.

The results are promising. Participants are less likely to reoffend and costs cheaper than imprisonment. A prisoner's average annual jail cost is $62,595 compared to between $1,400 and $13,000 for alternatives.

A third option is mother-child prison programs - one of the most comprehensive in Frankfurt, Germany. At Preungesheim, a maximum-security prison for women, programs accommodate high-security women with newborns and low-security women with children under five.

There, children stay with their mothers in order to develop the parent-child bond through parenting programs and pre-school.

Studies have shown keeping families together helps reduce recidivism while allowing children to form bonds in their infancy.

At a program in British Columbia, 12 women participated. According to Bayes, eight still have custody of their kids even though the province closed the facility last year.

"There are far better ways to get better outcomes, not just for mothers but for kids," says Bayes.

This isn't to say lawbreakers should not be punished. But, that punishment must not create new victims in children. If there is a way to end the cycle of imprisonment, we must explore it.

Futura recipere - grasp the future.

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