Mothers are at the Forefront of Challenging the Juvenile Justice System to Bring about Meaningful Reform
Date:  06-14-2016

"Homegrown leaders" are making sure their voices are heard and their proposals implemented
The following is from the introduction of the Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement is Transforming the Juvenile Justice System report by issued by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement is Transforming the Juvenile Justice System

By Nell Bernstein, Karen Dolan and Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

May 2016

“This is hard work. It's very hard work. For leaders in this role, often it's come about because of our own experience, and we have done it with blood, sweat, and tears.” — Lois DeMott, Citizens for Prison Reform

One in four women in the United States has a family member in prison. Among black women, this number rises to two in five. The family burden of incarceration falls disproportionately on women — especially black and Latino women — and on families that are low-income and poor. According to a report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design entitled Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, in an overwhelming majority of cases, family members were primarily responsible for the costs associated with having a loved one arrested and/or incarcerated — everything from lawyers' fees, to court-imposed fines, to collect calls and visiting expenses. Eighty-three percent of these family members were women. Further, the report also found that the fiscal costs associated with a family member’s incarceration left half of those affected struggling to meet basic needs and more than a third in debt.

As of 2013, more than 54,000 juveniles were incarcerated in juvenile detention, correction, or other residential facilities.9 While this represents a significant decrease from highs in the 1990s, the U.S. still locks up far more of its children than do other countries — 18 times more than France and five times more than South Africa, for instance.10 Given these numbers, it may not be surprising that a movement of family members — particularly mothers — is developing around the country, a movement that aims to challenge both the conditions in which their loved ones are held and the fact of mass incarceration itself. This report reflects an initial effort to map that movement and to distill the shared wisdom of its leaders. “If you want to make change in a community, you go to the women,” The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander has said. That is what we have done in researching this report. While we did not limit our investigation to women leaders — we spoke to fathers and other male relatives who have assumed leadership in the battle for freedom — we found that mothers comprised the majority within the burgeoning family-led movement to transform the juvenile justice system and the way the larger criminal justice system deals with the needs of young people. (Most of the groups we spoke with focus on juvenile justice, but the criminal justice system operates on a continuum, with many juvenile prisoners going on to adult facilities as they come of age. Given this, we also spoke with groups that define their mission more broadly to include families with members in juvenile and adult facilities.)

As a debate about crime and justice that has been a long time in the making gains steam across the country, the nation is beginning to pay attention to the impact of incarceration on families. But even as families struggle to gain visibility, what remains to be told is the story of the growing family-led movement. It is a story of collective struggle in the face of crushing pressure from institutions with nearly unlimited power — an insistence to be heard at the political as well as the personal level. In researching this report, we spoke with 14 family leaders in nine states. They spoke of the pervasive stigma that comes with having a family member behind bars — the sense, as one family activist put it, that “those who love those who have done wrong ought to be shamed and blamed.” They described walls of bureaucracy, red tape, and silence that compounded the distance imposed by physical walls. They told us of the lasting hurt their children experienced; wounds that remained open long after a sentence had been served. Continue reading report here.