Criminal Justice Reform: A CNN Hero Fights To Be Heard

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IMG_0008-1“Back in 1994 I was arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and conspiracy, and I was sentenced to 55 years.  All was suspended but six years.”

Carolyn LeCroy is the CEO of The Messages Project, a nonprofit organization that enables children of incarcerated parents to maintain and rebuild relationships with their mothers and fathers.  

LeCroy has two sons, and says she realized when she was locked up for marijuana possession, how horrible the situation really was.  In her case, the kids supported her and came to visit.  But many inmates, she says, are estranged from their families.    

Since 1999, the project has recorded and delivered more than 10,000 video messages from parents to their children.

“Children of incarcerated parents have a lot of trauma,” LeCroy says, “they take on responsibility.”

A report from the National Resource Center for Children of the Incarcerated based at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, says:

“While many of the risk factors children of incarcerated parents experience may be related to parental substance abuse, mental health, inadequate education, or other challenges, parental incarceration increases the risk of children living in poverty or experiencing household instability independent of these other problems.”

An  estimated 2.7 million kids in the United States have a parent or parents in jail or prison. For her efforts in helping thousands of those families connect, LeCroy was named a CNN Hero and honored on the national stage.

The Messages Project started at a women’s facility in Virginia, where LeCroy, an award winning film and video producer, is based.  The Project has expanded to Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, California — and as far away as Malawi.

Criminal justice reform is a hot topic in the 2016 election season — especially among Democrats.

In a speech last year, Hillary Clinton said that America needs to end the era of “mass incarceration”:

“Of the more than two million Americans incarcerated today, a significant percentage are low-level offenders, people held for violating parole or minor drug crimes or who are simply awaiting trial in courts.  Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities.”

Currently, Senators are locked in negotiations over a bipartisan bill that centers around lowering mandatory minimums.  It has stalled amid growing conservative oppositionIMG_9020

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has voiced loud skepticism, suggesting that the legislation is based on a “false premise” that non-violent first-time drug offenders are being locked up with lengthy sentences.

LeCroy believes the legislation would be a huge step forward.  “I think it is time we got smart on crime, and I think what Secretary Clinton said in her speech is right on target.”

She makes the point, as do many advocates for criminal justice reform, that keeping low level, non-violent offenders behind bars for lengthy periods of time is an overwhelming cost burden.  According to LeCroy, it costs an average of $27,000 to keep a healthy inmate locked up in Virginia for a year — and she points out that there are close to 40 thousand inmates in the state system alone.

While lawmakers battle it out on Capitol Hill, LeCroy and her team from The Messages Project continue to try to unify families all across the country.  

“When a child’s parent is incarcerated and a healthy connection is maintained, it reduces the child’s risk for social, emotional, and educational problems,” it reads on The Project’s website.

“For the incarcerated parent, family connection decreases the likelihood of recidivism.  Maintaining and enhancing the bond between the child and the incarcerated parent through video messages and other media are the focal points of The Messages Project.

LeCroy has also recently published a book titled, “A Parent’s Message”.  It is an interactive program that supports the bond between parent and child.

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