No Way Out for Parents Charged with Violent Crimes

“Now that I have a child of my own, I want to be in her life and show her that I have changed into a responsible adult.” –Daniel Loera, 21 years old, Monroe Correctional Facility

Daniel is one of the 45 percent of men in prison under 24 years old who are fathers. Daniel, featured in our last fatherhood blog, wants nothing more than a second chance so that he can help parent his 4-year old daughter but Daniel has no no way out anytime soon. He is serving a 7.75-year sentence for an assault he committed when he was 16. With no options for an early release and with his daughter in foster care, he may permanently lose his parental rights.

Daniel made huge strides during his stay in juvenile detention and before being transferred to the men’s prison when he turned 21. He became a leader for other gang members when he renounced his gang and began tattoo removal. He took charge of his mental health and stabilized behavior that was related to untreated and undiagnosed depression and schizophrenia. He was a such a star in the dog program that he has a job waiting for him with Purple Heart Rescue when he gets out. And, he began to build a relationship with his 4-year daughter and is now fighting to be a part of her life. In describing the tough conversations he has with his 4-year-old daughter he says:

“I tell her I am at school…[O]n my graduation she asked me, ‘Now that you are done with school can you come home now?’ It hurts for me to say no. I tell her, ‘I will be home soon I am almost done with school, I am almost done, I am almost out Mija.’ She just smiles and says, ‘okay I’ll be waiting for you.’ It hurts my heart knowing that I am not going to be going home anytime soon you know? It just feels like I can’t lie to her anymore. But I know when she gets old enough, she’ll understand why I was trying to hide it from her.”

In prison for a violent crime, Daniel is part of the 54 percent of people in our prison charged with violent crimes who are left out of reform efforts, with only a couple recent and effective exceptions being tested out in Brooklyn, NY and Richmond, California. In Washington State, Daniel was subject to harsh juvenile sentencing laws that automatically charged him as an adult. Just recently, New York made huge changes in raising the age for juveniles to 18, but again left out those young people charged with violent offenses.

With a violent crime Daniel is not eligible for Washington State’s Family Offender Sentencing Alternative which would allow him to release to the community early as it only applies to parents with non-violent crimes.

Daniel is also not eligible for clemency. Under policy in Washington State, clemency applicants must have at least served ten years after a 2013 policy change. There is a flimsy exception to policy offered for those with sentences under 10 years if you can prove unique or emergency circumstances.

Why have our policies left Daniel with no way out? Well, the public is often unaware that violent crime has actually gone down as news and tough on crime politicians distort statistics to support their actions. Also, much of our discussions and solutions around mass incarceration have focused on individuals with non-violent crimes. But, numbers from the Department of Justice Statistics show that only 4 percent are in prison for drug offenses alone and more than half of the people in our state prisons have been convicted of violent crimes. That means that if we let out everyone with a non-violent crime tomorrow, mass incarceration wouldn’t end and we would still have more people incarcerated in the US than any other advanced democracy.

Focusing on non-violent drug offenses may be a more palatable way to get people on board with the issue, but the reality is that we cannot make meaningful change to end mass incarceration without lowering the number of people locked up for violent crimes. With all the talk of the war on drugs creating our mass incarceration problem and leaving out solutions for individuals with violent crimes, we are leaving people like Daniel and his daughter with no options.

The current approach also assumes that people who act in violence are inherently violent people and that prisons bring us safety, which is not so true. A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice highlights the limitations of prison:

“The country cannot incarcerate its way out of violence. As a violence intervention strategy, prison fails to deliver the safety, justice, and accountability all people deserve, and at great human and financial cost. Increasingly, this message is being shared not only by justice reformers, but by crime survivors themselves”

A recent effort failed in Washington to expand the State’s parenting alternative sentencing program. Instead being based on the type of crime committed, the program would instead use a risk assessment tool. Unfortunately and contrary to what the Vera report highlights, the prosecutor attorney’s association testified with concerns [at 1 hour 16 minutes] about “moral accountability”—and that expanding the law would not be “good public policy.”

But with studies and programs like the Vera Institute’s, there is hope that our leaders will see that support for people with violent crimes is good policy and may actually give us the tools we need to actually reduce violence in our communities.

Lillian M. Hewko, J.D.

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