Burke & Coffey: Supporting Better Outcomes for Vermont Children


This commentary is written by State Representatives Mollie S. Burke, D-Brattleboro, and Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, co-chairs of the Women’s Legislative Caucus.

The children of incarcerated parents have committed no crime, but they are paying a heavy sentence. They often lose their home, their security, their public status, their self-image, and their primary source of comfort and stability.

This biennium, members of the Women’s Legislative Caucus have made the issue of parental incarceration a top priority by introducing H.399, a law that aims to ensure the fair and compassionate treatment of children whose parents are involved. in the criminal justice system. H.399 proposes giving these children some basic considerations when making decisions that affect them, especially when sentencing their parents.

Studies show that separation from a parent due to incarceration is considered a “negative childhood experience”, distinguished from other negative childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame and of stigma. It jeopardizes the social and emotional well-being of the child and can lead to behavioral problems, academic failure, substance abuse, mental health problems and incarceration in adulthood.

A 2014 Vermont Department of Corrections Inmate Family Survey Project conducted by the University of Vermont found that 2,000 Vermont children experience the incarceration of their parents every day. The annual number of children affected is more than 6,000.

Data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Child Health and Adverse Family Experiences found that one in 17 children in Vermont had a mother or father in prison.

Research suggests that intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children preserves and strengthens positive family bonds that can produce positive societal benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less intergenerational involvement of the criminal justice and the promotion of healthy child development.

Currently, Vermont does not have a formal process to assess an offender’s care responsibilities and the potential effects of incarceration on children. If passed, H.399 would require courts to consider the caregiver status of defendants before sentencing and would standardize how courts consider caregiver status.

This legislation would also help mitigate unintended consequences and promote better outcomes for Vermont children and reduced recidivism for their parents. Other states (Massachusetts, Washington, Illinois, Tennessee, and California) have passed similar legislation, and we hope Vermont will soon join their ranks with H.399.

On March 17, H.399 passed Vermont House unanimously. The bill is now on its way to the Vermont Senate, and Vermont is set to reform Vermont’s criminal justice system with a child- and family-centered approach to sentencing.

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Tags: children of incarcerated parents, H.399, Mollie Burke, Sara Coffey, Vermont Department of Corrections


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