Getting smart on crime helps fathers, families and children

On Sunday, families across our state will come together to celebrate fathers. A parent’s influence in the life of a child is unmatched, and holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day provide an opportunity to recognize the essential work moms and dads do every day to build strong families and raise healthy and happy children.

Yet every day, thousands of South Carolina children are separated from a parent due to incarceration. The overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents are fathers. Father’s Day is especially difficult for these children who suffer the brunt of having a parent in jail or prison. They have done nothing wrong, but growing up without a father, they are punished just the same. Our state places barriers between fathers and children only when absolutely necessary and, thankfully, we are on the right path.

Over ten years ago, a few folks started talking about getting smarter on crime. In 2010, those efforts paid off as our state’s policy leaders came together to support a broad package of criminal justice reform measures that placed us on a path to safely reducing the number of inmates in prison. These efforts also prevented the state from needing to build additional prison facilities, saving the state millions. All the while, crime continues to decline. While they were only a first step, these reforms have been lauded nationally and held up as examples for other states.

Why was this the smart approach? Our history of continuously ratcheting up sentences, especially for non-violent crimes, was simply not working. Over time, our prisons became packed beyond capacity with little benefit to taxpayers. Worse off, “lock ’em up” policies actually broke down families in our communities. Some 30 years ago, 1 in 125 children had a parent incarcerated. By 2010, that number surged to 1 in 28, with two-thirds of those parents incarcerated for non-violent offenses. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts reveals that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to be homeless, end up in foster care, and struggle in school.

Punishment by incarceration is a legitimate purpose of any criminal justice system. Yet, for most non-violent offenders, evidence-based alternatives to prison like community supervision actually work better than incarceration to get offenders back on the right track. South Carolina has shown that it is wise to support community-minded and cost-effective solutions that preserve family bonds, a key piece in preventing recidivism and second-generation crime, and maintaining healthy communities.

Take the case of one man in Lexington County. When he lost his job, he got behind in his child support and faced going to jail for up to a year for failure to pay. Rather than sending him to jail, the judge had an available alternative to incarceration in Lexington County and required him to participate in the fatherhood program at Midlands Fatherhood Coalition. He attended peer group sessions and successfully completed all components of the program. During this time, his relationship with the mother of his 6- year-old son improved dramatically, to the point where she attended sessions alongside the man so they could each work on co-parenting skills. He has now completed the fatherhood program, is employed, fulfilling his child obligations, and now more involved in his son’s life than ever and looking forward to a bright future.

Our organization, the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, advocates for policies that improve the father/child relationship. We rebuild the bonds between fathers and children, one father at a time. This is why we proudly supported the bipartisan criminal justice reforms of 2010 and why we remain invested in pursuing additional reforms, so individuals such as the man in Lexington County can be contributors to their communities as a result of community solutions, not imprisonment.

Again, we are on the right track, and we encourage Gov. Henry McMaster and our state legislature to continue to invest in smart, community-focused criminal justice reforms in the years to come. Our families deserve it.

Jon Ozmint is a member of the board of directors of the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families and the Sentencing Reform Oversight Commission. He is a former director of the state Department of Corrections.