Minnesota stops separating newborns and incarcerated mothers

The state just passed a first-of-its-kind law to keep families together.

A new law makes Minnesota the first state to stop the practice of separating incarcerated mothers from their newborns within days or even just hours of delivery.

The status quo: An estimated 2,000 babies are born to incarcerated mothers every year, and most of those newborns are separated from their moms within 24 hours of delivery.

That can be traumatic for the mothers, leading to higher rates of postpartum depression. It can even increase their chances of returning to prison once they’ve served their initial sentence.

Babies immediately separated from their incarcerated mothers, meanwhile, can grow up to have more emotional and behavioral problems than those who aren’t.

“Biologically, moms and babies are prepared to be together,” Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Pediatrics, told the Star Tribune. “That separation is really complicated.”

Extended sentence: The problems don’t end when the mothers leave prison, either. Even though the average sentence for a woman in prison is just 18 months, that’s long enough for babies born to incarcerated mothers to bond with someone else.

“The moms and babies don’t know each other — they can’t dance together,” Shlafer said of the reunification experience. “The baby has been dancing with another partner for the last six months.”

The Healthy Start Act: In May, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed into law the Healthy Start Act, which gives the state’s Department of Corrections the authority to place incarcerated mothers and pregnant women in halfway houses and similar settings.

The women will be able to stay with their newborns in those settings for up to the first year of their life — and by then, many will have already completed their sentences, meaning the moms and babies never have to be apart.

There’s always that concern that you’re being soft on crime, but this is being soft on babies.

Mary Kiffmeyer

The bigger picture: A handful of U.S. prisons and jails do have programs designed to keep incarcerated mothers and their newborns together — at least temporarily — but no other state has a law like Minnesota’s.

Now that the Healthy Start Act has passed, it might be easier for lawmakers in other places to pass similar legislation — preventing newborns from being punished for the crimes of their mothers.

“There’s always that concern that you’re being soft on crime, but this is being soft on babies,” Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer told the Star Tribune. “It gives them a chance.”

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