Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration by Keeping Mothers and Children Together

By: - September 13, 2017 12:00 am

Stephanie Petitt holds baby Legend outside of ReMerge’s offices in Oklahoma City. The program aims to keep mothers out of prison and with their children.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Stephanie Petitt was arrested for violating probation for prior drug and robbery convictions, she learned two things: She was 16 weeks pregnant, and she would probably deliver her baby while incarcerated at an Oklahoma prison.

In most places, an incarcerated woman who gives birth almost immediately hands over her newborn to a social worker, who places the child with a relative or with foster parents. Petitt said she was told she would have an hour to hold her newborn.

Just a few states offer alternatives that allow mother and child to stay together longer. At least eight states have so-called prison nurseries where nonviolent female offenders live with their children for a few months to several years.

But in Oklahoma City, pregnant women who are facing imprisonment for nonviolent offenses can avoid doing time and stay with their children by participating in a program known as ReMerge. The program, which is also open to mothers who have already lost custody of their children, includes two years of intensive therapy, parenting classes and job training. Women who graduate have their charges dropped.

Similar pretrial diversion programs for expecting women and mothers are scattered across the country, many formed at the city or county level. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many there are.  

But the idea behind them is clear: Diverting women from prison and keeping families together can save money and help break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Researchers say separating children from their mothers causes significant distress, and that children are more likely to end up in prison if they have parents there. And with the number of incarcerated women — and the cost of imprisoning them — on the rise in some states, the programs are drawing new attention.

Oregon began a pilot diversion program in 2015, basing it on a Washington state program that serves both mothers and fathers facing incarceration. This year, Oregon extended its program to pregnant women, too. Supporters say it will allow the state to avoid paying million to construct a new women’s facility.

Oklahoma City launched its program in 2011, spurred by Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate for women — the highest in the nation, both then and now.

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Rebecca Beitsch

Rebecca Beitsch writes about energy and the environment for Stateline. She covered state government in Missouri and North Dakota, writing about politics and policy for NewsRadio KMOX, the Columbia Missourian and the Bismarck Tribune.