I have recently been paying attention to the media coverage of crime and have become aware of how really distorted the information we get from the media truly is. A case in point is the lack of stories about families in trouble due to incarceration of a loved one, whereas the big story is about the crime, the conviction, and the killer.
By contrast, there are few stories about the victims or the families of the incarcerated defendants, unless they happen to be famous, such as when a celebrity is killed or a TV star goes to prison, such as Teresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Celebrity Apprentice. A series of People magazine articles and other news articles have featured her story, describing how she spent 11 months in prison and now stays home with the kids while her husband serves a 41 month sentence, both for bankruptcy fraud, though their jail sentences were split so they could each spend time at home caring for their kids.
The problem is that the media plays up the drama of police arrests and convictions, and once a defendant or victim is well-known, their story is what is featured in the news. Likewise, the protests that erupt over especially egregious police actions receive a lot of media attention, particularly when these protests might turn violent.
Forgotten in this media and public attention are the families of the victims or the convicted and incarcerated defendant. The justice system offers only some sympathy to victims’ families, and certainly none to defendants’ families, though family stability and values provide the backbone for a strong society. These families are the forgotten casualties of the criminal justice system, as I describe at more length in my book American Justice?, which deals with the many problems in the criminal justice system and how to fix them.
In my view, these family victims represent “collateral damage.” It’s a term commonly used to refer to the unintended damages from a military operation, which includes the destruction of civilians. This term fits the family of a prisoner, too, because whenever a family member is incarcerated or killed, there can be great damage to family units – including spouses, children, parents, and relatives, and all of the defendant’s or victim’s relationships. Stories of murders generally focus on the investigation and defendants, who are impacted negatively at all stages of a prosecution, from the initial charge to the trial and verdict. But what happens to their family members is largely ignored by the media and public.
Unfortunately, these damages can be huge and lifelong. I became especially sensitive to this issue, when I became collateral damage after my wife was falsely accused by some kids in the neighborhood of trying to run one of them over. She had to endure being thrown into a psych ward for a five day evaluation and then a series of hearings, forcing her to finally accept a plea bargain, whereby we had to move out of the neighborhood and sell our house at a loss. Meanwhile, through this long exhausting process, I suffered extensively along with her.
As I wrote in my book: “I felt her anger. I felt her despair…And there was nothing I seemed to be able to do to protect her, which made me feel inadequate and worthless.” My relationships at work deteriorated, too, since colleagues had trouble understanding what I was experiencing, and I, as well as my wife, experienced a lack of privacy when the local media picked up the story. In addition, my wife has never been the same, and the damage to our family’s finances became extensive and excessive.
While my wife and I just barely had the finances to weather the storm, many families of defendants and victims don’t, especially when they live in the inner city, where much of the crime violence that affects both victims and defendants occurs. Thus, when a male who has been the major family provider is killed or sent to prison, the family may become financially unstable. The wife may not make enough with a single income to pay the bills, and other relatives and friends may not be in a position to help. So after a few months or perhaps a year, the family may end up losing its home or be unable to pay the rent and end up living in a car, van, or truck, or worse – reduced to living in a tent.
Some of the cities with a high homeless population, such as San Francisco and Oakland, have found that a large percentage – about a quarter to a third of the homeless population – was formerly part of the middle or working class and until recently had homes. But then, due to an unlucky break, such as having a main provider incarcerated or the victim of a crime, they ended up as a homeless statistic.
In American Justice?, I have described at length the problems that these families encounter – from financial woes to the breakdown of the family and the end of personal relationships for an individual who is incarcerated. Moreover, the children may suffer lasting damage, finding it difficult to cope with a parent’s incarceration or death due to a violent crime.
What is the solution to help reduce the collateral damage? In American Justice? and in further researching the problem, I have come up with a number of possible solutions to deal with the collateral damage these families of prisoners suffer. One approach is to provide extra counseling, tutoring and mentoring support through the schools to the children of incarcerated parents. Support programs could be established for the wives and children of returning prisoners, much like for the families of returning soldiers to help them better know and adjust to the difficulties ahead. Also, the partners of prisoners could form small support groups to take care of each other’s children when at work or during prison visits. Additionally, I recommend the expansion of re-entry and job training for prisoners and ex-prisoners to help them successfully enter normal society. All of these programs can be provided at a low cost to reduce the collateral damage problem, while helping the families become more productive members of society. In my view, these approaches can be a win-win for both the prisoners and their families and for society as a whole.
I’ll talk about other problems I have found in the criminal justice system and what to do about them in future blogs. Want to read my book? It’s available through Amazon https://www.amazon.com/American-Justice-Paul-Brakke/dp/069271068X.