Is Today the Day Massachusetts Takes the First Step to Keep Justice-Involved Primary Caretakers of Children Out of Prison?
Date:  01-30-2015

Providing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent primary caregivers who commit a crime makes sense in many ways
Andrea James founder of Families for Justice as Healing (FFJH) and author of Upper Bunkies Unite, based on her experience as a person in prison, has been a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform, particularly for women. James is currently spearheading a drive for women who have been incarcerated in Massachusetts to meet and organize against the proposed building of a new prison in that state. James feels strongly that building another prison to incarcerate more women, most of whom have dependent children, does not make sense, especially when many of the women will be incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

A former attorney before her conviction, James has become renowned across the country for her tireless efforts to help educate both legislators and the public about the critical need for immediate sentencing reform. Reentry Central and James have worked together to promote the message that not only is our current criminal justice costing taxpayers billions of dollars, but it is also destroying communities, and has caused untold damage to the 1 in 28 children in America who have a parent that is incarcerated. (Full Disclosure: James and Reentry Central Managing Editor Beatrice Codianni are co-founders of Real Women Real Voices , an organization of formerly incarcerated women that encourages dialogue concerning the collateral consequences associated with the mass incarceration of women.)

Families for Justice as Healing empowers formerly incarcerated woman to organize together to fight for alternatives to incarceration. James recently created An Act to Create Community-Based Sentencing Alternatives for Non-Violent Primary Caretakers of Dependent Children, which was filed in Massachusetts on January 16, 2015 as House Docket #3321. The Act is framed around keeping families intact through an alternative to incarceration program when the primary caregiver of children is convicted of a nonviolent crime.

Today, January 30 is the last day that Massachusetts legislators can co-sponsor bill other legislators have filed. Will Massachusetts legislators stand with their Co-Representatives Russell Holmes and Senator Patricia Jehlen in supporting HD# 3321? Reentry Central will Keep you updated.

HD# 3321 reads as follows:

Summary: This bill calls for the establishment of community-based sentencing alternatives for primary caretakers of dependent children charged with non-violent crimes, with the goal of alleviating the harm to children and primary caretaker parents caused by separation due to incarceration of the parents, while reducing recidivism and strengthening family unity and communities.

Why This Matters: In a report issued by Erika Kates, Ph.D, of the Wellesley Centers for Women, an estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of incarcerated women in Massachusetts are mothers, over half of whom likely lived with their children prior to arrest. Kates’ report, Exploring Alternatives To Incarceration (ATI) For Women In Massachusetts, July, 2011, states that in 2006 an estimated 15,000 children in Massachusetts were affected by their mothers’ incarceration. Half of the incarcerated women at MCI-Framingham do not receive visits from their children due to financial and other constraints of the temporary caretakers. This can result in the incarcerated parent losing contact with their children and permanently losing custody of their children.

The Women’s Prison Association reports that children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. One in ten will be incarcerated before reaching adulthood. A recent Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC) study, states that emerging research shows that simply increasing time served for broad categories of offenses and placing all people who have been convicted of those offenses in one category, is a high-cost, low return approach.

What This Bill Would Do: Currently in Massachusetts there is no legislation or policy that requires a determination to be made whether the justice-involved person is a primary caretaker of a dependent child. This bill would require a sentencing judge to determine whether a person is a custodial, primary caretaker of a dependent child, and eligible for consideration under this bill, and if so, the court shall order a community-based, non-incarcerating sentencing alternative.

Such sentences shall take into consideration a myriad of services, based on individual assessments, including individual and group substance abuse counseling, individual and group counseling services, relapse prevention workshops, vocational and educational groups, medical, housing and financial assistance, domestic violence intervention and workshops, parenting skill development (if applicable), entrepreneurial and empowerment seminars and recreation and leisure activities.

The Cost Effective, Evidence-Based Solution

Representative Russell Holmes and Senator Patricia Jehlen have filed this legislation to create community-based alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of non-violent offenses who are primary caretakers of dependent children.

James can be reached at info@justiceashealing.org or (617) 905-2026