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'This isn't just numbers - but lives': Half of Americans have family who've been incarcerated

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/6/2018 Christal Hayes
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WASHINGTON - One of Felicity Rose's first memories of her father was the sheet of glass that separated them when she visited him in prison. 

Growing up she tried to hide his past, the prison sentences that kept him behind bars for drug crimes, and the ripple effect it had on her family, both financially and psychologically. 

Over time, though, Rose, realized her family wasn't alone and her story was only one of millions, as noted in a new first-of-its-kind study on Thursday by FWD.us, where Rose now works directing research on criminal justice reform. 

Among the findings of the study, obtained first by USA TODAY, were that half of all adults in the U.S. have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. That's about 113 million people who have a close family member who has spent time behind bars. 

The study by FWD.us, an organization that focuses on immigration and criminal justice reforms, was done in partnership with Cornell University. The conclusions were drawn from a survey of more than 4,000 people, a sample size representative of the U.S. population. 

The study comes at a time when Congress has a massive criminal justice reform bill on its plate. The that have bipartisan support -- and approval from the president. The First Step Act would be the largest overhaul of the criminal justice system in decades. The measure includes giving judges more of a say in sentencing, allows offenders to be incarcerated closer to their families and would allow inmates in drug cases the chance to petition for lighter sentences. 

The legislation passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. A growing number of senators have been pushing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to let the measure get a vote. 

the inside of a building © Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. "There's support on both sides of the aisle. It just doesn't seem like this should be that difficult," said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a nonprofit working toward criminal justice reforms. He noted changes in the measure are "modest" in the grand scheme of things but, like the name suggests, are a good first step. 

"I think this report makes it crystal clear why changes are not only needed but necessary. This isn't just numbers - but lives," said Ring, who was on the advisory board for the study. "We seem to overstate the benefits of prison and understate the costs: people's lives and the lives of their families." 

The study found that one in seven people have an immediate family member who has spent at least a year behind bars, and another one in 34 people have an immediate loved one who has spent more than 10 years or longer in prison. 

The study also found arrests affect everyone - including nearly the same number of Republicans and Democrats - but numbers of those affected increase when examining minorities and families living in poverty. The survey notes six out of 10 African-Americans and Native Americans had an immediate family member who had spent time behind bars. 

One aim of the report is to not only show the numbers but how deep this impact of incarceration stems and make it a little easier for those affected to talk about it. 

"This isn't just a few people, this is millions of people but yet there's so much shame and stigma attached to this issue, so much so that people just don't talk about it," Rose said. "There is a silent suffering around the country, but people need to know they're not alone." 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'This isn't just numbers - but lives': Half of Americans have family who've been incarcerated

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