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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Help offered inmates’ children

The Spokesman-Review

Crime hasn’t increased in the United States in the past 30 years but punishment has. The war on drugs and the advent of “three strikes laws” have helped fill penitentiaries and jails. One of the unintended consequences of this tough-on-crime trend is that children of the incarcerated are themselves placed on a path to prison.

There are an estimated 2.5 million such children in this country, and they are six times more likely than other children to end up behind bars someday. They are also more likely to end up on public assistance or run up other social costs. About 17,000 prisoners in Washington state have children.

A faith-based mentoring program was begun in 2000 to help break this cycle of hidden costs from hidden children. Amachi (a West African term meaning “who knows but what God has brought us through this child”) was the brainchild of social scientist John DiIulio Jr., formerly in charge of faith-based initiatives for the Bush administration. Its salesman is the Rev. Wilson Goode, a former mayor of Philadelphia. Goode was 14 when his father went to prison.

Goode is introducing this promising program to Spokane and with the help of a partnership among Big Brothers Big Sisters, Educational Service District 101 and the Northeast Washington Department of Corrections.

The benefits of providing a positive adult role model are well-known. Behavior improves, grades rise and school absenteeism drops. Mentors provide an avenue of hope. They open young people’s eyes to possibilities.

But it’s not easy. The shock and shame of seeing a parent taken off to prison causes many children to withdraw. Mentors can be frustrated by slow progress. It takes time to build trust and break down barriers.

That’s why Amachi has tapped congregations and Big Brothers Big Sisters. These institutions have demonstrated they are committed to improving their communities and that they are in it for the long haul.

Participating pastors can identify people who would make good mentors. Big Brothers Big Sisters has the best model for making one-on-one connections. The result is well-trained mentors with significant moral support. Amachi mentors do not proselytize. As Goode puts it, they are expected to “live their faith,” not preach it.

Through a federal grant, the local partnership hopes to find 310 mentors. The grant ends in 2007. Though Amachi is still in its infancy, it has produced encouraging results.

We hope the spirit of the program spreads and that such mentoring can become a vital part of the nation’s compassion agenda.

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