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Testimony by Marsha Weissman

Executive Director, Center for Community Alternatives (CCA)
On the Effects of Incarceration on Children and Families
Before the Assembly Standing Committee on Children and Families,
Assembly Standing Committee on Correction and the
Assembly Standing Committee on Codes

August 8, 2001

Good morning. My name is Marsha Weissman. I am the Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives, also known as CCA. CCA is a private, not-for-profit agency that works in the fields of criminal and juvenile justice. CCA operates several alternative to detention and incarceration programs, including the Youth Advocacy Program that provides community supervision and support to juvenile offenders and juvenile delinquents, Crossroads, a substance abuse treatment program for women and Client Specific Planning, a sentencing advocacy program. Besides these programs, through our CHOICES programs, CCA also provides services to HIV and AIDS infected persons in the criminal justice system, including what is variously called discharge, transitional or release planning for people leaving state prison.

I would like to start by thanking the Chairs and members of the Assembly Committees sponsoring this important and typically overlooked issue. CCA also appreciates the consistent support of the Assembly for our programs and other alternative to incarceration programs.

I will address one of the identified as salient to this hearing by the Committee: specifically what kinds or programs and resources can help promote public safety and an individual's success in transitioning from prison to the community.

CCA's perspective on these issues comes from our work with thousands of offenders since 1981. It comes from our specific work with helping to develop parole release plans for inmates with HIV or AIDS as well as general parole advocacy that we provide through our Client Specific Planning project. We also provide case management services to inmates coming out of prison and returning to New York City and thus have occasion to work closely with parole officers, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn . Finally, the Division also refers women on parole to some of specialized women's programming in New York City .

Let me start by sharing with you an observation that has stayed with me since we began our work in 1981. Whether at the front end (sentencing) or the back end (parole release) the issues related to a person's success in the community are quite similar. Stable residence, a job, help with family issues and community connections. Of course, many people involved in the criminal justice system also need specialized services, but these services are not a "one size fits all" model. Some people need mental health services, others need drug treatment services, others, relapse prevention, others health and medical care. The connections to home, family, job and community are the basics.

People coming out of prison however face an additional challenge and that is the need for help in simply reacclimating to the community. To relearn basics of life that may have changed considerably while a person was in, especially if it is for more than a year or two. Folks have to relearn things we take for granted, like how to use public transportation, especially if the payment system has changed while one was away, how to wake up by oneself, how to use increasingly computerized consumer purchasing options. You have to reconnect with family, children who have become used to a new parent figure, children who have grown while you were away. You have to face tests every day that have to do with balancing freedom and responsibility both of which are not part of a custodial environment. You have to temper yourself and understand that there really is no way to make up for "lost time"; that the challenge is to make sure no more time is lost.

There is growing interest in and research about reentry. on children of incarcerated parents indicates that the loss of a parental figure, especially the mother, has profound effects on children and adolescents. Children retain bonds and love for parents regardless of the label attached to her by society. For adolescents, the population that CCA works with through our juvenile justice programs, parental incarceration has been associated with poor academic achievement, involvement in delinquency and gang-related activities, violence and eventually adult criminal behavior. One study estimated that children with imprisoned parents are almost six times more likely than their counterparts to become criminally involved and incarcerated at some point in their future. There may be as many as xx children of incarcerated parents in New York State today. Presently, there are few services for these children. School personnel, human service providers and others are largely unaware of the needs of these children and how to address them.

CCA developed the Children of Incarcerated Parents (ChIPs) support group as an additional, specific response to the fact that more than 50 percent of the youth in CCA programs identified themselves during initial screening as having experienced the incarceration of one or both parents, and an additional 30 percent are subsequently identified during the course of the program year

CCA started this program with a modest $10,000 grant from a local foundation; as far as we know, there is no public source of funding to support the program, let alone expand it. Despite the fact that many of our institutions deal with children of incarcerated parents every day - in the juvenile justice system, in alternative schools, in foster care, in our religious institutions, I have never seen any funding to support programs that work specifically with children around the issues of their incarcerated parents.

Children who are separated from their parents by incarceration, can have a variety of strong emotions exacerbated by this family situation, including anger, isolation/sadness, fear/anxiety, and guilt. These emotions and the youths' reactions to them can lead to problems of violence, erosion of self-esteem and "risky" or dysfunctional behaviors. Many of these children see no chance of having their lives follow paths which are any different from those of their parents.

Discussions during the support group sessions have revealed a range of issues including multiple placements, juvenile delinquency among the students and their siblings and a high level of family instability. Every student in the program has expressed relief at being able to talk about the issue of parental incarceration, and for those teens who witnessed their parents' arrest, ChIPs has generally been the first time they were able to express their feelings of fear, grief and anger that they experienced during that traumatic event. Youth in the support groups frequently do not know where their parent is located and /or the specifics of the crime committed by the parent. An extreme case is that of Tyrone whose father had been incarcerated since he was very young. Tyrone spent several years without knowing his father was in prison. Instead, due to the stigma and shame associated with incarceration, he was told that his father was in the army. He has since learned about the incarceration, but does not know why or when his father will be eligible for parole.

We also see the tragic impact of incarceration through our work with women. Listening to women speak about their children provides the most haunting picture of what happens to parents, especially to mothers, when they are unable to raise their children. And while certainly some of the women in our program did not do a good job raising their kids - being so addicted to drugs that the drugs came first and last, most women despite their struggle with drugs, were committed to raising their children. And equally important, the condition of the women in Crossroads is due to more than their individual choices. It is also attributable to our social policies, especially those that invest in incarceration rather than treatment. From women in Crossroads, we see the terrible costs of not attending to their needs at an earlier time in their lives. Until 1990, there were few programs that were dedicated solely to women and the resources for women remain insufficient. As the notice for this hearing has pointed out, there are now 3,500 women incarcerated in New York State - an increase of 500 percent since 1990, the year that CCA opened the Crossroads program. Yet Crossroads program remains one of the few programs dedicated to women offenders. While there are several alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs in New York City , there is an additional 1,800 or so women are locked up on Rikers' Island . There is virtually no gender-specific ATI program in upstate New York . The lack of gender-specific resources means we lose tremendous opportunities to provide effective services to women, leaving them to additional years of drugs, crime and personal pain that is shared by their children.

Along with my written testimony, I am leaving you with a copy of a video tape "Beyond Jail: Women, Addiction and Crime." This video which portrays women in Crossroads was produced by CCA with the support of the U.S. Justice Department and will be distributed nationally by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. One of the most salient themes raised by Crossroads women is the challenges of reestablishing a parental role. In particularly poignant segments, women in the program speak about how ashamed their children were about their drug use and subsequent criminal involvement, how children took over the "mother role" and how difficult it is to "reestablish the mother role 1." The most joyful parts of the video are seeing the women who have overcome these challenges and have reestablished relationships with their children.

Even a cursory look at the lives of the women in Crossroads informs us about the kinds of services that would make a difference and the costs and consequences of not addressing these needs through community-based programming. An evaluation of Crossroads conducted by the National Development and Research Institute found that on average, these women first experienced physical and sexual abuse at age ten; by age 15 they were using drugs regularly. Almost none completed high school and were typically arrested two times as juveniles. The average age of first pregnancy is 19 years. By the time they enter our treatment program, they have been arrested and convicted multiple times, have been incarcerated, and have long drug histories. Many have already lost of custody of their children, traded sex for drugs, and many are now HIV infected.

Crossroads represents a holistic and women-centered approach to treatment that, as a day treatment program, is particularly suited for women with children. While residential treatment is an essential part of a continuum of treatment services, even the few residential programs that can accommodate children generally restrict the number and age of the children who can live with the mother. As a mother I can tell you that it is no easier to leave an 8-year-old or 13-year-old child than it is to leave a 2-year-old. Therefore, day treatment that provides exacting structure with an ability for women to care for their children is an especially useful modality for women. Crossroads addresses not only drug use but domestic violence, and histories of physical and sexual abuse as 80 to 90 percent of women in the program have been so victimized. The program also includes family-related issues as they present themselves; many women in Crossroads are involved not only in the criminal justice system, but the child welfare system as well and CCA helps them to reestablish visitation, plan for family reunification or maintain custody depending upon individual circumstances.

Both of the programs that I have described - ChIPS and Crossroads - show that community-based services for families - both the offenders and their children - can be effective in reducing recidivism and preventing crime. Of the 80 youth who have participated in the support groups, 70 percent had been arrested for juvenile delinquency prior to program participation. Only four youth or 5 percent were rearrested since their participation. On average, youth academic average increased by three percentage points. Ninety-one percent have been returned to their regular home school; only one student (2 percent) who completed the program has since dropped out of school.

Last year, Crossroads served 57 women of whom 57 percent successfully completed the program. Of the clients who exited for negative reasons, only two women (6 percent) were terminated due to rearrest. Almost all of the women in Crossroads have regained or maintained custody of their children and since the program's inception ten years ago, almost all of the babies born to pregnant women in the program were born drug-free.

The increase in incarceration of women has fallen disproportionately on women of color joining an ugly tradition of criminal justice policies that have come at the expense of communities of color. We have deprived these communities of its young, its male, and now increasingly its women, many of whom are mothers of young children. The collateral consequences of the over reliance on incarceration extends from reducing the ability of communities to be politically to be politically involved when so many men and women are disenfranchised as a result of criminal convictions. We are encouraging truancy, school drop out, teen pregnancies and violence by depriving children of their parents.

I am struck by the simple fact that we presently spend much more to incarcerate people than most of us can afford to spend for our own sons or daughters to go to the finest of colleges in this country. Think of what can be accomplished if some of this money could be redeployed into programs like Crossroads and ChIPs and other programs that deliver drug treatment, or employment training, or community support and supervision. I hope this hearing is the beginning of a process that begins to support families - inside and out.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

1 These comments are direct quotes from Margaret one of the women included in the Crossroads video.

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