by Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 52,000 kids in New Mexico – about 10 percent of the state’s child population – have had a parent who at some point in their lives served time in jail or prison, according to a new Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national advocacy organization working to improve the lives of at-risk children and families.

Nationwide, more than 5 million children have had a parent incarcerated.

New Mexico’s rate is higher than the national average of 7 percent and gives the state a third-place ranking in that niche demographic, tied with Alaska, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Only Indiana, with 11 percent, and Kentucky, with 13 percent, have a larger percentage. The states that fared the best are New Jersey, with 3 percent, New York, with 4 percent, and California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Utah – all with 5 percent.

The rate of incarcerated parents in New Mexico has been steadily rising since the 1980s, even though crime has been steadily decreasing in the state since the late 1990s, according to the report.

Veronica C. García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, the Casey Foundation’s Kids Count grantee in New Mexico, said that many families in our state lack the financial resources to cover basic needs, including food and housing. “Having a parent in jail or prison is emotionally traumatic. So much so that parental incarceration is recognized as one of the adverse childhood experiences that can have long-lasting effects on a child’s development and well-being.”

While many states are moving away from incarceration of nonviolent offenders, she noted, New Mexico’s most recent legislative session saw a heightened focus on bills that would lead to even higher incarceration rates. And because people of color are disproportionately represented in prisons, their children are also disproportionately affected.

Albuquerque child psychologist and Voices for Children board member Luis Vargas said there are a multitude of factors that feed into New Mexico’s large number of incarcerated parents. Among them are poverty, lack of jobs, the parent’s educational level and the criminal justice system itself, which tends to hand out harsher sentences for people of limited financial resources and limited access to legal representation.

Copyright 2016, Albuquerque Journal