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By Allie Thomas
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times
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COMMENTARY
Criminals' Families Also Do Hard Time
By Allie Thomas

June 25, 2004

As the ex-wife of a white-collar criminal, I get a knot in my stomach reading the ongoing saga about pleas and sentencing for the tax-cheating wife of Enron fraudster Andrew Fastow. Lea Fastow is scheduled to start her one-year sentence July 12. The innocent Fastow children would be left alone if Mom and Dad went to jail at the same time, and the Fastows have been trying to convince the judge, with the help of sympathetic prosecutors, to juggle their prison terms so one could be home at all times. I'm outraged and envious that such special treatment has even been under consideration in Houston.

I wasn't so fortunate. I woke up one day in 1992 in my beautiful suburban home in Pennsylvania, the dutiful wife of a prosperous businessman, and went to bed that night with my husband in jail and facing the future as a homeless, penniless, single mother pregnant with my fourth child. I had no idea my husband had been committing fraud at his company. When the dust settled, he drew a harsh 10-year sentence, which we all got to serve right along with him. There were times when I wished I could swap places. Jail might have been a vacation from the misery we lived through on the outside.

I became a have-not overnight. Within an hour of my husband's arrest, our bank accounts were frozen, and the kids and I were cast into a black hole without so much as a match. I was forced to sell every material possession we owned, right down to my engagement ring. After three years of his 10-year sentence, the marriage snapped. The kids and I went on welfare, lived on food stamps and coupons, community handouts and a prayer or two. But it wasn't enough.

Realizing I would have to reinvent myself, I put my three sons in a boarding school for disadvantaged kids a good one and free, but an orphanage of sorts nonetheless. For eight long years, I saw them once a month while I lived with my baby and my parents in their modest home. I went back to school, worked in my spare time and earned a graduate degree. I took any kind of work I could find and scraped by until one day I finally was able to bring my children home, the pain of separation and shame permanently etched on their faces. In some ways, my children were more fortunate than most with parents behind bars. At least I had the knowledge, instinct and opportunity to find them a safe place while I got my life back together.

Millions of families are forgotten and left to drift in our nation's frenzy to keep everyone who ever made a mistake locked up. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation, both in absolute numbers 2.1 million and on a per capita basis 1 in 143 men, women and children. The direct cost of building and running jails is now about $50 billion a year. The indirect cost to families and society is incalculable.

As outraged as I've been that the wealthy, connected Fastows might get special treatment, my real outrage is saved for the long, harsh sentences that Congress has forced judges to hand out to many nonviolent offenders. Yes, my husband committed a crime that left hundreds out of work and economic wreckage in the millions. But 10 years is a long time, during which he could have paid his debt and obtained psychological help, worked at some sort of job, helped support his family and made restitution to his victims.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said this week that we must change how we decide who goes to jail, how long their sentences are and what happens when they get out. He was responding to a new American Bar Assn. report recommending an end to the mandatory sentencing guidelines under which my husband was given his decade-long sentence.

In addition to sentencing that is humane, what's needed are fewer occupied prison cells and more rehabilitation and education facilities for convicts; a bill of rights for children of accused and imprisoned parents that requires judges to take them into account when sentencing; and programs that help families stay together for their sake and for the sake of convicts, who are less likely to re-offend if they maintain family ties.

Our public policy should not be designed to punish and keep punishing families and society along with criminals. Failure to address this issue will simply grow the already swollen ranks of this hidden underclass, perpetuating a costly and cruel embarrassment in a nation that prides itself on true justice.

Allie Thomas, a career consultant, is an advocate for families of prisoners and at work on a book about her family's experiences.



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