The problem of the dysfunctional family—which lies close to the core of mass incarceration as well as a host of other national ills—may well be the most confounding dilemma confronting our state and nation. Its tentacles extend far beyond the prisons, and unseen, into many of the economic, social, and cultural tensions the nation experiences. To meet the challenge it poses, we must first acknowledge its role. Our political leaders simply don’t confront these realities in public, while privately shrugging their collective shoulders and sighing that nothing can be done.
If they are right, our children and grandchildren face a dramatically altered America because they will not be able to bear the societal costs of the dysfunction that lies ahead. I disagree with the politicians. I believe the problems we face are solvable. If I thought otherwise, I would not be devoting a year or more of my life to seek this office. In the coming weeks I’ll be discussing some of these solutions - and inviting your thoughts and proposals.
First, though, there is more difficult ground to tread concerning hard realities of life in America and South Dakota and how the American Dream has been lost for many of our children. So, before I discuss some ways we can recapture the American Dream for them, and reinvigorate the American Spirit for us all, I will be sharing more of those realities in Part III in the days ahead.
During my time as a judge, most of those I sent to prison came from highly dysfunctional, impoverished homes. They frequently experienced mostly untreated multigenerational addiction, often with mental illness from childhood abuse and neglect, and lacking either a diploma or a work ethic. Their problems began early: they tended to start school behind the other kids, only to early on develop their own substances uses quite young, sometimes as early as 8, until they fell out of school altogether and in time, into the court system. All this has helped lead to a separate sub-culture, and, over the past few decades, has had devastating impacts on our budget, our economy, and the fabric of our culture.
Consider a few statistics:
- Today, in this nation and state, government pays for 1 in every 2 births through Medicaid.
- The unintended pregnancy rate among poor American adults is twice that of the average of the developing nations.
- While in 1978 our state prisons held about 500 inmates, today that number is about 4,000, more than ever, and the rate of growth over the past 40 years is 30 times the population growth rate.
- Two-thirds lack a diploma, 90% have a substance disorder, the vast majority grew up without a father; and poor.
- Eighty percent of our state’s prison inmates are there for nonviolent crime, and the annual turnover rate is also around 80%. Many are there because of ongoing addictions, and we lack adequate treatment for and because they continue to use they violated probation until they go to prison because the system has no other place for them.
- We hold more seriously mentally ill people in our jails and prisons than in therapeutic facilities;
The most vulnerable and tragic victims of this cycle are the current generation of their children untold numbers of kids growing up in dysfunctional poverty – who live in the shadows of our communities, in quiet desperation, and without hope.
We must do far, far more to protect the children.