Federal judges handing down sentences to parents and caregivers would have the power to consider whether it would be better for the whole family if the defendant were to stay out of prison or probation and instead be ordered to receive a comprehensive range of services, under legislation introduced this week.
The identical bills were introduced in each house by a pair of lawmakers from the Pacific Northwest, where such laws have been in place in the state courts of Washington and Oregon. If enacted, the measures would represent a step forward in efforts to reduce mass incarceration in the United States, which accounts for almost 25% of the world’s prison population but 5% of the world’s people.
Backers say research and experience show that children who suffer the trauma of being separated from their caregivers when the adult gets locked up are more likely to end up in foster care, where further adverse experiences often compound their problems. In addition, they say, parents and caregivers from Washington and Oregon who were spared prison and went through the rehabilitation services with their families were less likely to find themselves back in prison later on.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), named their proposal the Finding Alternatives to Mass Incarceration: Lives Improved by Ending Separation Act, or FAMILIES Act, which is endorsed by nearly 100 community-based organizations across the U.S.
Jayapal said that by judiciously offering resources, services and training that meet the individual needs of people convicted of crimes, the payoff for families and society alike could be profound.
“As we prepare for a new administration who campaigned on reforming a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts Black and brown families,” Jayapal said in a news release, “we need to prioritize policies that shrink the world’s largest prison population, deliver humane alternatives to mass incarceration and strengthen communities.”
“Prioritizing families not prisons will make our communities safer,” Wyden added.
In determining whether a person should be diverted into the Families Diversion Program or be sentenced to prison or probation, federal judges would have significant leeway. They must consider, among other factors, whether the person has significant parental responsibilities and how well they carry them out, the nature of the crime, the person’s criminal record, a victim’s statement and whether it’s a good bet that society will be safe if the person is not locked up.
Federal judges would be given training in how the Families Program is designed to work. Participants would generally not be required to pay for the community-based resources, services and training programs they may need, as determined by an individual evaluation. These include working toward a GED, parenting classes and substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.
The measure would appropriate $100 million for fiscal year 2021 to implement the Families Diversion Program on the federal level and set aside $20 million in grants for states that want to replicate successful parenting sentencing alternative programs.