When parents go to jail or prison, their children often suffer too.
Kids of incarcerated parents face not only the pain of separation from their mom or dad, but also disruption to their family life, economic hardship if the imprisoned parent was a breadwinner, and the risk of being placed in foster care. Studies show these experiences can have long-term negative effects on children’s physical and mental health.
Now, a bill making its way through the state legislature aims to make it easier for parents charged with certain crimes to stay with their kids. If passed, SB 394 would allow courts to establish a diversion system for primary caregivers of children under 18. Instead of incarceration, eligible parents would complete rehabilitation requirements ordered by a judge. These could include parenting classes, individual or family counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment, anger management, job training, and financial literacy classes.
Parents charged, but not convicted, of certain crimes would go before a judge who would decide it they are suitable candidates for the diversion program. If they successfully complete the program, charges against them would be dropped and removed from their record.
To qualify for the program, parents would have to demonstrate that they are not a threat to their kids or the community, and that their absence from the home would have a detrimental impact on their children. Those charged with serious or violent crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery or child sexual abuse would be excluded from such programs.
“We know that separating families can lead to bad outcomes for the parents and the child,” said California Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who introduced the bill. “If we have circumstances where … someone who has committed a crime has demonstrated commitment to rehabilitation, has demonstrated their commitment to their family and is trying to be successful in the community again, and if the judge and the prosecutor can see that there’s merit to keeping a family together, then (the bill) would allow for that.”
Skinner explained that California already offers diversion programs for other groups of offenders, such as those who are mentally ill, and veterans. The program for parents would be integrated into this existing system, she said. If passed, Skinner predicted the bill would ultimately reduce state spending on incarceration and foster care.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice is one organization supporting the bill. The Center operates a rehabilitation program in San Francisco for formerly incarcerated women and their children called Cameo House. In addition to providing transitional housing, substance use treatment and employment assistance, the program spends considerable time helping moms repair their relationships with their kids, which has often suffered because of the months they’ve been apart, policy analyst Renee Menart said. Parents have to reestablish trust and a sense of stability for their children, she said.
“The presence of consistent adult support really can’t be understated as far as importance goes,” Menart said. “I think the impact of (SB 394) would be felt by children and their families as a stop in the cycle that we often see.”
Not everyone supports the bill. The California District Attorney’s Association has argued that it would unfairly single-out parents for special treatment under the law, allowing them to avoid being held accountable for their crimes.
The association also takes issue with a provision in the bill that would allow parents who qualify for and complete a diversion program to have the criminal charges against them dropped and removed from their record. The association argues this would jeopardize public safety by withholding information from employers.
The Association says SB 394 also does not take into account restitution for victims of crime.
The bill passed the Senate in May, and is now being considered by the state Assembly.