April is Second Chances Month, which provides us an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in criminal justice reform. As we continue to emphasize second chances for nonviolent criminals, April offers us the chance to consider second chances for fatherhood in the lives of children with incarcerated parents.
America’s prisons are full of fathers separated from their children, housing roughly 800,000 incarcerated parents, 92% of which cannot be a steady force in the lives of their children. Most of these men are fatherless themselves, which perpetuates a cycle of broken families.
America is home to over 1.7 million children who have a parent in prison, or 2.3% of all U.S. residents under the age of 18. According to a 2021 report from the Justice Department, the average age of kids with a parent in prison is between 9 and 10 years old.
That means that there are nearly 2 million children growing up without a father to discipline or encourage them. The truth is that fatherlessness is one of the most accurate predictors of social outcomes in a child’s life. Data suggests children with a father in their life are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, drop out of school, run away from home, commit suicide and more.
It should also come as no surprise that fatherlessness and criminal activity are closely related. Data shows that children without fathers are roughly 20 times more likely to end up incarcerated and 11 times more likely to exhibit violent behavior than their counterparts who come from two-parent homes. In the same vein, roughly 80% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes.
This sobering fact lines up with what I see through my work with juvenile detention facilities every day. Just last week, I was visiting a Florida facility, where I learned that 94% of the juveniles we visited did not have a father at home.
Astonishingly, this juvenile detention center — like many across our nation — did not even require high school classes or GEDs for the detained youths to prepare them for a successful life after incarceration.
In my mind, this is the wrong approach. We, as a society, should push these kids to pursue education or trade skills while requiring it for any juvenile as part of rehabilitation. Instead, we’re withholding it from them and forcing them to sit in prison and rot their brains on pop culture that glorifies criminality and denigrates family.
In a cruel irony, our failure to demand access to educational and training programs for juveniles in detention costs the taxpayers more. Without education and training, the most basic building blocks, youths leaving juvenile detention face enormous difficulty in securing a job, thereby increasing their odds of recidivism and ending up back in prison.
The costs of demanding education and training for our kids end up being far lower than the costs of not preparing them to succeed in life, and studies estimate that for every dollar spent on prison education, four to five dollars are saved post-release — plus the moral stain it puts on our country in failing to provide children with the groundwork they need to succeed. These programs already exists, so there wouldn’t be any additional cost; we just need to require them.
For example, The GEO Group is a leading organization that functions as one of the most successful government contractors in the criminal justice system. With a strong embrace of an evidence-based approach to rehabilitation, The GEO Group has provided thousands of current and former inmates with resources to successfully reenter society upon release.
These programs cover a wide variety of areas such as behavioral therapy and educational resources, and they even extend support post-release ensuring that returning citizens aren’t abandoned in a world they may no longer recognize.
This is where the true equity conversation should be happening in America. It is a tragedy for society and bad stewardship of taxpayer money to spend tens of billions of dollars on prisons only to have juvenile inmates sit there without receiving commonsense efforts toward rehabilitation and skills attainment.
The Bible says, “do not spare the rod,” and this is exactly what we are doing in our criminal justice system by allowing criminals to sit in custody without preparing to work their way back into society. This is just another example of being “soft on crime,” to the detriment of our youth and our society. Rehabilitation must be a mandatory component of incarceration for nonviolent criminals, for both the inmate and the community.
All of us have done things we regret and had moments in our lives when we needed a second chance. Many of us were given that chance just by the opportunities we were born into, by the grace of God. This is our opportunity to provide those same chances to others, as well. It’s also a second chance for us as Americans to not fail our kids.
It’s a second chance for us to help guide them on the path to success and actually invest in our country’s future, rather than keeping them mired in cycles of crime and poverty. It’s a second chance at life as well as a second chance at fatherhood. It’s a second chance at family. It’s a second chance at being a role model, a mentor, a provider and a protector.
This April, it’s a second chance for all of us.
Jack Brewer serves as the chair of the Center for Opportunity Now, and vice chair of the Center for 1776 at the America First Policy Institute. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump to the Congressional Commission for the Social Status of Black Men and Boys and is currently a professor at Fordham Gabelli School of Business. Brewer previously played in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.