Penny Nance: We must do more to help mothers who are incarcerated -- Here's how

As both a president of a national organization and a mother of two, I can testify that there is truly no job more important than raising my children.

Studies have shown that being present in a child’s life doesn’t only help them grow emotionally and academically, but it can also help them flourish years later as an adult. Sadly, not every child gets to grow up with a mother: today, there are over 140,000 children with their mother in prison, and those numbers are on the rise.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that “the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled” since 1991. People might suspect that that statistic is a reflection of an increase in crime rates, but that’s not necessarily the case. Both violent and property crime rates have been on the decline since the mid-1990s. Rather, the recent increase in women’s incarceration rates is more closely tied to an increase in tough sentencing laws than an increase in criminal wrongdoing.

While sentencing changes were made with good intentions, there has been no measurable decrease in drug trafficking or drug addiction. Instead, the net of harsh drug sentencing wound up entangling lower-level offenses such as possession. This has contributed to the increase in women’s incarceration rates.

Drug crimes make up a large portion of convictions for women. Sixty-four percent of women who are incarcerated for drug possession have children, and four-out-of-ten mothers reported that they were the primary bread-winners for their children prior to arrest. That means there are thousands of children who are losing not just a mother, but a financial provider that they depended on for food, clothing, and shelter.

We should do all that we can to keep mothers, who have proven to be trustworthy caregivers, with their children, especially if the cost to put them away outweighs the benefit for public safety and well-being of their children.

It must be said, first and foremost, that the crucial step to preventing incarceration is for everyone to lead law-abiding lives. Unfortunately, mothers are not perfect. We’re not without trials or mistakes. Sometimes we suffer from deeply-seated issues that we’re unable to overcome on our own – like addiction.

The CDC reported that the number of women who have died from drug overdose has risen by more than 400 percent since 1999.

Mothers are not spared from the opioid crisis, which is why I believe the criminal justice system should carefully consider which drug crimes warrant incarceration and which warrant substance abuse treatment.

Specialty courts are one alternative to incarceration that can hold offenders accountable without breaking families apart. They work by diverting offenders with underlying issues such as substance abuse or mental health issues away from incarceration and into treatment.

For mothers that are not fit to be caregivers, this affords children the opportunity to stay connected with their mothers while they get the treatment they need. Success garnered from these alternatives has inspired states across the nation to reconsider harsh sentencing for low-level drug offenders.

For a glimpse into why there’s over 3,000 drug courts today, just look to my home state, Kentucky. In a two year outcome evaluation, incarceration rates for drug court program graduates were 53 percent lower than among non-participants. Graduates were also convicted of 50 percent fewer felonies and achieved a 16 percent lower arrest rate than non-participants. With less crime and savings of more than $2 million, all Kentuckians have reaped the reward of drug court programs.

Offering treatment and support in lieu of punishment is by no means letting someone off the hook. Kentucky’s drug court program is a multi-pronged approach that takes up to 25 months to complete.

With the help of these programs, Kentucky isn’t just gaining safer streets or saving tax dollars, Kentucky is helping moms be more equipped to raise their kids and provide for their families.

Moms have a gift for caretaking that cannot be replicated by anyone else. When mothers are incarcerated, kids can float between family members’ homes or sometimes end up in foster care. That’s why I feel so strongly that we need to do all we can to provide alternatives to incarceration when possible. Drug courts can help.

Penny Young Nance is president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest women’s public policy organization. She is the author of the book "Feisty and Feminine: A Rallying Cry for Conservative Women" (Zondervan 2016).