Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a return of the most strict penalties and punishments, including mandatory minimums, effective immediately for federal cases. The new directive laid out for federal prosecutors in an eight-paragraph memo explicitly rescinded more lenient sentencing policies for nonviolent criminals and drug offenders.The directive, particularly as it relates to nonviolent drug offenders, is likely to boost rates of incarcerated fathers, affecting hundreds of thousands of children and families.
A 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistic report found that 1.7 million children in the United States had a parent in prison, which amounts to 2.3 percent of all minors in America. However, in a 2010 report Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s effect on economic mobility, PEW researchers put that number as high as 2.7 million. Of those parents, two-thirds are nonviolent drug offenders.
Based on that same PEW report, the picture is particularly bleak for minorities. One of every nine African American children have an incarcerated parent. For Hispanic children, that number is one in 28. Comparatively, only one in 57 white children has a parent behind bars.
The loss of a father to incarceration has been shown to lead to particularly bad outcomes for children. It generally results in a 22 percent loss of family income and 23 percent of children with an incarcerated parent will be expelled or suspended from school. Faced with poverty and poor educational outcomes, many children of incarcerated parents are also at risk for eventually being locked-up themselves.
The history of mandatory minimums for drug charges begins in earnest during the ’80s crack cocaine epidemic. Congress established a framework for drug-related mandatory minimums in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which reversed the broad repeal of mandatory minimums that occurred in 1970. At the time of the bill’s passage, only 38 percent of the federal prison population were drug offenders. That number has since doubled.
There have been attempts to introduce leniency in sentencing as the prison populations in the U.S. increases. And the issue has been addressed through legislation, Executive Orders, and directives for federal prosecutors to use discretion and fair judgment in nonviolent cases. It would appear Sessions’ memo has brought those efforts to an end.