Post Date: July 19, 2013
Ifetayo Harvey, an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote a powerful piece about her experience growing up with a parent behind bars – a reality facing 2.7 million children in the United States (you should read Harvey’s piece, if you haven’t already). The issue has received more attention recently – last month Sesame Street introduced a new character who has a parent in prison and released a toolkit to help children with an incarcerated loved one.
Harvey’s piece immediately made me think of Sharanda Jones and her daughter. When Sharanda was sent away to serve life without parole in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug crime, her daughter was eight years old. Now a young adult, Sharanda’s daughter reflects on what it was like to find out that her mother was never coming home:
My world as I knew it was shattered… Being without my mother for over 13 years of my life has been extremely difficult. But the thought that she is set to spend the rest of her life in prison as a first-time non-violent offender is absolutely devastating… I know that my mother committed a crime and that she has to pay for her actions. However, after over 13 years I feel she has more than paid the price for her crime. My mother does not deserve to come out of prison in a casket.
It also made me think about Marissa Alexander, who left three children behind when she was sent to prison for 20 years in Florida for firing a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband. I thought of Robert Furlong, whose daughter was seven when Rob started serving his 15 year prison sentence for marijuana. Even though he remains close with his daughter, it tears Rob apart that he isn’t there to watch her grow and succeed. The list goes on.
Now, I think these sentences would be insane whether Sharanda, Marissa and Rob had children or not. But maybe you disagree. Maybe you don’t feel all that much sympathy for the parents – as Sharanda’s daughter said, “I know my mother committed a crime and that she has to pay for her actions.” But we’re burying our heads in the sand if we ignore the impact that excessive, mandatory prison sentences have on children (who have committed no crime) and entire families. Unfortunately, mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from doing just that – or considering virtually any other circumstances relating to the offense or the offender – when imposing a punishment. We need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences – this is another example of why – and, until we do, we’ll rely on people like Harvey to speak out about the issue outside of the courtroom.