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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Miller

Understanding the Landscape of Incarcerated Youth in Washington, DC

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Sean was 6-years old, just days away from the first day of school, when strangers kicked down the door of his grandmother’s house. Their guns un-holstered. Tiny beams of light circling in the dark from their flashlights cracking through the darkness like lightning bugs on a dark night. It was his mother’s screams that woke him from his sleep. He scrambled from bed in his tiny room that he shared with his sister, through a crack door he could see his father laying on the floor, face down, nostrils flared in anger, breath heavy. Small fibers from the shag carpet stuck to the side of his face. His eyes the color of a violence sunset. Hands behind his back as they lift his father from the floor, his arms like an abandon swing set reveal the cuffs sparkling in dim light. Blood pooled in the corner of his mouth refusing to fall. The red and blue lights flashing outside the window told the story to listening neighbors. He was too young to be embarrassed, too young to understand the crime and too young to know that it would be 10 years before the strangers in blue would kick down that same door and come for him…

It is estimated that 60,000 people in DC have criminal records, with more than 2,500 offenders returning to the District of Columbia from prison and roughly 17,000 cycles through the DC Department of Corrections each year (DC Department of Corrections Facts and Figures, 2013).

Leaving in their wake the Nation’s highest rate of children with incarcerated parents, nearly 10,000 according to the Anne C. Casey Foundation. These children feel the absence of an adult, whether it is several nights in jail or years in prison, in myriad ways, even if they weren’t sharing a home (Geller, 2012).

Families who are already living in extreme poverty feel the loss of income or child support when a parent is incarcerated. This problem is further agitated by the looming effects of eviction, and the loss of housing, because their families can no longer afford the rent. The rumors of the missing parent due to incarceration is also felt at school, at church or in their neighborhood about the whereabouts of their mother or father.

Mothers are the fastest growing correctional population in this group, having increased 48% between 1999 and 2013, from 68,100 to 100,940. Approximately 7 in 10 women under correctional sanction have minor children, accounting for more than 1,300.000 children (Statistics on Women Offenders, 2016).

Approximately 17 percent of incarcerated women and 21 percent of incarcerated men were between the ages of 18 and 24 at the time of their commitment to the DC Department of Corrections as of July 2016. While 31 percent of all incarcerated women were 30 years or older and 47 percent of all incarcerated men were age 30 or younger (DC Department of Corrections, 2016).

As the U.S. prison population surged during the past several decades, so too did the number of children and families experiencing the consequences of having a loved one incarcerated. (The Sentencing Project, 2017). On a national level, the number rose dramatically from 1980 to 2000, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent (Western, B., & Wildeman, C., 2009).

Incarceration is one of the least effective and most expensive public safety strategies, yet DC and other communities continue to rely on this failed tactic.

Trends show that even when crime is down in the District, arrests and incarceration continue to climb. Despite the recent drop in crime, police resources continue to increase, leading to increased arrests for low-level and nonviolent offenses. In DC and across the country, the impact of these arrest policies and the criminal justice system disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities. (A Capitol Concern, 2010). To make matters worse, DC no longer has its own prison facility, so incarceration is even more complicated for the population of DC convicted offenders who receive sentences of more than one year. This population is sent to facilities throughout the country. Bureau of Prisons policy place them as far away as 500 miles of DC (CSOSA, 2014).

Any number of factors can contribute to a person becoming involved in the criminal justice system, including a history of trauma or victimization. Over 93,000 children are currently locked up in juvenile correctional facilities around the country. Research shows that while up to 34 percent of children in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event, between 75 and 93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system annually in this country are estimated to have experienced some degree of trauma (Healing Invisible Wounds, 2010). But what if the trauma was directly related to the incarceration of a parent? Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation. It creates an instable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being (A Shared Sentence, 2016). Children of incarcerated parents are at increased risk for both internalizing – depression, anxiety, withdrawal and externalizing – delinquency, substance use, behavior problems, cognitive delays, and difficulties in school (Eddy & Poehlmann, 2010).

DC youth arrest statics nearly mirror the national data, making up 27 percent of all arrests during 2013 in Washington DC, with the most frequent arrest charges for drug offenses. Regarding their rates of incarceration, young adults comprised 2,270 out of 10,603 total bookings in 2014 by the DC Department of Corrections (Beyond Second Chances, 2016).

As with other DC Code offenders, young adults are incarcerated at Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away from DC. The Bureau of Prisons has already shown some willingness to consider alternatives. For example, some people under Bureau of Prisons have been transferred back to the D.C. DOC to allow them to better plan for re-entry. DC could consider working with the Bureau of Prisons to allow young adults to remain at a DC Department of Corrections’ facility for the entirety of their sentences. This would allow young adults up to 22 years of age to access any special education services they are entitled to but which are not provided at the Bureau of Prisons. Remaining local would also help the young adults to maintain and build connections with family, mentors and other supports who will help them when they transition back to the community (Beyond Second Chances, 2016).

Despite being the agency responsible for juvenile justice, most people under the custody of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services are also young adults, not children. In FY2015, 74.9 percent of youth committed to Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services were 18 or older (Council of the District of Columbia Committee, 2016).

This is because juveniles committed to Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services can remain under its supervision, either in a facility or in the community, until they turn 21. In 2014, 44 percent of the population at New Beginnings, the facility in which DC juveniles are incarcerated, were 18 or older (DRYS, 2017).

For young adults in DYRS custody as well, recent data show that 100 percent are black. DC’s young adults also have high rates of recidivism. During FY2014, 28.8 percent of young adults under CSOSA supervision were rearrested; 507 violent arrest charges were ascribed to those rearrested, and 513 young adults who had their community supervision revoked and were subsequently re-incarcerated (DRYS, 2017).

This is in line with national statistics. A 2002 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that of all adults who had been in state prison, people in the 18 to 24-year-old age bracket had the highest rates of re-arrest (75.4 percent), reconviction (52 percent) and return to prison with a new sentence (30.2 percent) within three years of release.

Research shows that a significant part of the difficulty black boys in the United States face in school is traceable to having so many of their fathers in prison.

One could add yet another unintended problem to the list of damages mass imprisonment has inflicted on American society. Simply stated, the prison boom of recent times turns out to perpetuate disadvantages from fathers to sons, because it undercuts boys’ readiness to pay attention and control their emotions at school. Because black fathers are the ones most likely to be sent to prison, far too many black boys start the race of life well behind other children.

Something to think about…

Glenn Kinnard-Brown, MS

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