Kids & the Realignment

In 2011, California's Assembly Bill 109 "realigned" the criminal justice system to reduce the size of state prison and parole populations by moving low-level prisoners to county jails and transferring post-release supervision to county probation departments.  Like most other legislation addressing the courts and corrections, AB109 was passed without consideration of its effects on children of families involved in the criminal justice system.


Jailed Mothers & Their Children After the Realignment

In 2013, there are about 1400 mothers incarcerated in Los Angeles County jails.  In spite of AB 109, which sent more women to jail and less to prison, this number has changed only slightly over the past decade.  The reason is that most individuals charged with misdemeanors---once a large minority of the jail population---are no longer detained in the jail or sentenced to incarceration.  


Post-Realignment, mothers in the jail fall into three groups:

Just as before AB109, the smallest group of mothers are those convicted of serious and/or violent offenses.  These women are sentenced to imprisonment and spend several weeks to months in the jail before moving on to State prison.  The Realignment has had little to no effect on parent-child contact for this group of mothers and their children, since they would have visited in the jail and the prison under the same conditions prior to AB109.


Another group, about one in four mothers, have been charged with low-level felony offenses, convicted and sentenced to incarceration in the jail as county prisoners.  Just as in the past, the large majority of mothers in this group will be incarcerated for only a few months as a result of "good time" reductions in their sentences and early releases due to jail overcrowding.  The Realignment has had few effects on parent-child contact for this group of mothers and their children; these families would have visited in the jail under the same conditions prior to AB109.


The largest group of mothers in the jail---almost two out of three---are those who have been convicted of non-serious, non-violent felony offenses for which they would have been sent to prison prior to the Realignment.  Now serving their time in the jail, these mothers will be incarcerated for at least 9 months.  The Realignment has had a significant impact on contact between this group of mothers and their children.  While State prisons offer 6-hour contact visits in open visiting rooms and outdoor settings twice a week, county jail visits are limited to 30 minutes twice a week and take place through plexiglass barriers. The large majority* of the children of AB109 mothers---who might have had up to 12 hours of physical contact per week with their mothers in the prison---are now unable to touch their mothers for almost a year after maternal arrest.


Unintended Effects

AB109 has achieved many of its goals, reducing the number of people in State prisons, decreasing the number of people incarcerated for very low-level offenses and transferring post-incarceration community supervision to the counties.  However, at the same time, the Realignment has had unintended consequences, including a reduction in parent-child contact for many families of incarcerated parents.  This change is unlikely to be permanent, as correctional authorities are working to develop new services within the new configurations of their systems.  But these services cannot be implemented in time to address the needs of the infants and young children who did not have contact visits with their jailed parents in 2011, 2012 and the first half of 2013.


When Babies Must Wait

There is a child development saying that "babies can't wait".  This refers to the developmental imperatives of infancy and early childhood, when children grow and acquire essential skills---like the capacity for attachment and primary self-regulation---at an incredibly rapid pace.  During the same period, parents and caregivers develop a caregiving bond to their babies that insures they are deeply invested in and protective of these children.  This kind of family development must occur in a timely manner to allow babies and parents to achieve healthy, appropriate relationships.


But babies cannot form any type of relationship with parents they cannot see, hear, taste and feel.  Similarly, parents cannot form caregiving bonds with babies they cannot hold and touch.  Parent-child relationships within families deprived of these opportunities are weakened and sometimes permanently impaired, creating significant barriers to family reunification after separations and leading to costly, long-term consequences for the kids, their families and society.


Infant and toddlers of parents who were/are incarcerated in county jails rather than State prisons as the result of AB109 have had or will have no physical contact with their parents for significant periods or the entirety of their early development.  Prior to the Realignment, these young children and their parents would have been physically separated while the parents were in jail but parent-child contact would have become possible once parents were transferred to State prison to do their time.  Now, physical parent-child contact is impossible from parental arrest until release for essentially all families in the jail.*


This kind of unintentional oversight of child/family needs in setting and implementing criminal justice policy occurs everywhere; it is not specific to California or the Realignment.  But because Los Angeles County has more children of prisoners than any other jurisdiction in the state, it will affect more young kids and their families here than anywhere else---kids who have been and will be forced to forgo the benefits of even a limited physical relationship with their parents.


These babies, who number in the thousands, have had to wait.  And the rest of us are now waiting, too---for the long-term consequences of policies that were put in place without recognizing or honoring children and their development.


Things to Do While Waiting

However, we don't have to just sit and wait to realize the long-term effects of extended parent-infant separations among families of jailed parents before taking action.  There are a number of things that can be done immediately and in the short term to address this concern.


  • Public education.  Communities, public agencies and community-based organizations can begin to provide public education about the effects of early, extended parent-child separations and how the effects of such separations can be addressed.  Mini-campaigns can be conducted in preschools, clinics and pediatricians' offices.  More targeted outreach with this information can be provided to parenting probationers and families---like those receiving public benefits and/or involved in the child welfare system---that are more likely to include a parent who is or has recently been jailed.


  • Increasing access and availability of infant mental health and parent-child services.  Communities and public agencies can work with pediatric, education, child welfare, child development and child care service providers to 1) increase professional awareness of and screening for the effects of early, extended parent-infant separations; 2) increase identification of and offer intervention for families experiencing the effects of these separations; and 3) develop appropriate referral resources for affected families.


  • Increasing the knowledge and skills of jailed parents.  Community-based organizations can work with the jails to increase the knowledge of jailed parents about early, extended parent-child separations and what families can do to counteract their effects.  This can mean adding infant mental health content to existing parent education programs or developing new programs.  Re-entry collaboratives and groups can insure that their programs specifically address the effects of and interventions for extended parent-infant separations.


  • Increasing parent-infant and parent-toddler contact for families of jailed parents.  Jails can increase contact between incarcerated parents and their youngest children by expanding existing parent-child contact visiting programs and creating new, more developmentally-focused program models.  The ChildSpace Project---conducted by a community-based agency at a California women's prison from 2006-10, supervised by an infant mental practitioners, delivered by child development specialists and strongly focused on parent-infant relationships---is an example of a program that delivered high quality parent-child correctional visitation services at a low cost.


Breaking Off a Piece for Babies

Parental incarceration---the conditions that precede it and its effects on children, families and neighborhoods---is a large social problem that often seems overwhelming and impossible to address effectively.  However, the post-Realignment issue of extended parent-infant separations is a tiny but critical piece of the problem that can be broken off and addressed immediately in the interests of babies, children, families and society.



*In Los Angeles County, the jails offer the ABC Program, which provides contact visits for mothers and children once a week for 3 hours. This excellent program is able to serve less than 1% of mothers in the jail and their families.