With the 86th Legislative Session coming to an end, there’s even more reason to pay attention and become engaged before the window of opportunity to make positive change closes for another two years. As a youth organizer and member of Youth Rise Texas — an organization led by and for young people impacted by the criminialization or deportation of a parent — there is one bill I’d hate to see the sun set on before session’s end. HB 1389 could help thousands of Texas youth by ensuring that more parents and caregivers have a shot at staying home with us instead of being incarcerated.
The Prison Policy Initiative notes that Texas has over 250,000 incarcerated people and that 52 percent are parents. Incarceration of a parent forces many young people to find full-time employment and become caretakers for younger siblings. It puts young people at risk of homelessness and can leave lasting trauma. Children with incarcerated parents suffer from sleep-related issues, eating disorders and mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety. And we’re sentenced to all of this on top of the sentence our loved ones serve when incarcerated.
House Bill 1389 aims to change that. It considers alternatives to incarceration for mothers and fathers in order for them to have supervision of their children. The bill received bipartisan support in the Texas House and awaits a hearing by the Senate. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat, and Rep. James White, a Republican, authored the legislation. HB 1389 would direct judges to consider community-based sentencing alternatives for people who are primary caretakers of underage children and who aren’t a threat to public safety.
Bills like HB 1389 could also help create equitable opportunities for children of color in Texas who are most likely to be impacted by parental incarceration. The 2006 General Social Survey found 44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men reported having a family member incarcerated compared to just 12 percent and 4 percent of white men and women, respectively. Families of color are more likely to be financially vulnerable and the loss of a parent due to incarceration can create problems for children that go beyond the emotional loss, leading to a lifetime of economic instability and poor health outcomes long term.
In particular, the loss of a father to incarceration can have devastating effects on children as fathers are often primary breadwinners for their families. When a father is incarcerated, the risk of his children becoming homeless increases by as much as 94 to 99 percent. A study performed by Dylan B. Jackson, assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio, found that children of incarcerated parents suffer from poor nutrition.
It’s important for Texans to understand the unique struggles experienced by children of incarcerated parents: We deal with our ordinary responsibilities of school work and chores but also often take on full-time work and other family responsibilities. The toll of this stress, and the shame and uncertainty we face because of the situation, pile on top of the pain of losing a parent to the criminal justice system. Passing HB 1389 keeps parents out of prison and ensures that thousands of Texas children like me have a fair chance at a stable life and successful future with our parents at our sides.