When parents are sentenced to incarceration, their children often wind up being unintended victims by being placed into foster care, and congressional Democrats want to do something about that. Under an alternative sentencing bill recently reintroduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and in the House by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, eligible parents or caregivers would, instead of being locked up, be provided with the resources they need so their children can stay safely at home rather than placed into the foster care system.
Wyden and Jayapal’s proposal is modeled after programs in their states that Wyden said in a statement “clearly demonstrate keeping families together helps reduce recidivism rates and rebuild lives. Investing in these kinds of programs nationwide will make communities everywhere safer.”
The bill would appropriate $100 million for the fiscal year 2022 to kick off the diversion program on the federal level and $20 million to fund grants for states to replicate parent sentencing alternative programs like those in the Pacific Northwest that have been successful, backers say.
“As we work to urgently reform a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts Black and brown families, we must prioritize policies that deliver humane alternatives to mass incarceration, shrink the world’s largest prison population, and strengthen communities,” Jayapal said.
The bill is known as the Families Act. It would establish a program that includes education, employment services, parenting skills, mental health and substance abuse services for convicted parents. It also addresses the basic needs of the defendant and their family by connecting them with health care, housing assistance and other public benefits.
To be eligible, a parent or caregiver must be looking after a minor child, a relative with disabilities or an elderly family member. Courts will also take into account the defendant’s history of trouble with the law, the family’s safety and a statement describing the impact that a prison sentence would have on the defendant’s family.
Judges would also receive training in implementing the Families Act program, including training in trauma-informed decision-making, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, substance use and addiction, and mental health.
The Sentencing Project is one of the groups that back the Families Act. Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives, noted that locking parents up can lead to a range of harmful outcomes for kids, including depression, anxiety, anger and aggression.
The Families Act will fund a research study of the effects of parental incarceration on children and instruct the Government Accountability Office to examine the implementation of and access to services.