July 27, 2021

Wyden, Jayapal Reintroduce Legislation to Provide Alternatives to Incarceration for Parents and Caregivers to Keep Families Together, Children Out of Foster Care

The FAMILIES Act is modeled after successful Oregon and Washington state programs aimed at preventing trauma for children and families and proven to reduce recidivism

Legislation is endorsed by nearly 100 criminal justice, civil rights and child welfare organizations

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., today reintroduced legislation to create an alternative to incarceration for eligible parents and caregivers and provide them the resources they need so their children can stay safely at home instead of entering the foster care system 

The Finding Alternatives to Mass Incarceration: Lives Improved by Ending Separation Act (FAMILIES Act) would allow federal judges to divert parents and caregivers from incarceration into a comprehensive program that would better serve them, their families and society by offering resources, services and training to meet their unique needs. The legislation is modeled after successful programs in Oregon and Washington state that have kept hundreds of families together and been key to reducing recidivism.

“While families thrive together, the American criminal justice system is tearing too many loved ones apart, leaving irrevocable damage in its wake,” Wyden said. “Pacific Northwesterners know this truth about the carceral state, and that’s why there are successful programs in Oregon and Washington that clearly demonstrate keeping families together helps reduce recidivism rates and rebuild lives. Investing in these kinds of programs nationwide will make communities everywhere safer.”

“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,” said Congresswoman Jayapal. “Proudly modeled after Washington's successful program that reduced recidivism, the FAMILIES Act establishes a new federal program that diverts parents and caregivers from incarceration while keeping families together and investing in their wellbeing by offering resources, services, and trainings to meet their individual needs.”

Joining Wyden in reintroducing the bill in the Senate were U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii and Reverand Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. Joining Jayapal in the House were U.S. Reps. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Adam Smith, D-Wash., David Trone, D-Md., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa.

“Every time a family is separated by incarceration, we risk traumatizing vulnerable children,” said Merkley. “We must do everything we can—including establishing alternative programs for eligible parents and caregivers—to keep families together. Another benefit of programs like these is that they’ve shown to lower rates of recidivism, a crucial step forward to help strengthen the safety and well-being of all of our communities. That’s a win-win, and I’m urging my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join us in bringing this commonsense reform to every community across America.”

“If someone is convicted of a crime, it should not sentence their child to a life of instability. The FAMILIES Act addresses this issue by allowing kids to stay in their homes and allowing parents to maintain their caretaker roles while completing an alternative sentencing solution. We should be taking steps like those in the FAMILIES Act to lower the rate of recidivism and finally dethrone the United States as the global leader in incarceration of its people,” Markey said.

“It’s time to end the international embarrassment of the U.S. locking up more people than any other country on Earth. We must finally put an end to mass incarceration and invest in alternatives, like the FAMILIES Act, that keep families together, strengthens communities, and rebuilds lives instead of destroying them,” Sanders said.

“Too many children grow up with the emotional scars of missing a parent or caregiver because those loved ones are incarcerated. When appropriate, we should aim to keep families together and offer them the resources they need to thrive,” said Durbin. “We should implement alternatives to incarceration in our federal system like the successful, comprehensive programs in Oregon and Washington that unite families and work alongside them to address the cycle of recidivism and underlying needs of our communities.”

“Too often, America’s criminal justice system separates families, when children and their parents would be better helped by a system that provides humane, effective assistance that includes education, employment services, parenting skills, mental health, and substance abuse services. The FAMILIES Act will keep communities strong by investing in families to reduce recidivism,” Hirono said.

The FAMILIES Act establishes a FAMILIES diversion program that includes education, employment services, parenting skills, mental health and substance abuse services. It also addresses basic needs of the individual and their family by connecting them with health care, housing assistance and other potential public benefits.

An eligible individual must be pregnant, a parent of a minor child, a caregiver for a minor child or other minor relative, a caregiver for an individual with disabilities or a caregiver for an elderly family member. When considering eligibility for the FAMILIES program, courts will take into account the individual’s significant parental or caregiver responsibilities, their history of justice involvement, the safety of their family and a family impact statement describing the impact that a prison sentence would have on the family of the defendant. Judges will receive training in implementing the FAMILIES program including training on trauma-informed decision making, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse and addiction, and mental health.

A summary of the FAMILIES Act is available here.

Legislative text is available here.

The Sentencing Project Director of Strategic Initiatives Kara Gotsch: “In the United States the incarceration of mothers and fathers can result in numerous negative outcomes for children, ranging from depression and anxiety to anger and aggression. Initiatives, like the FAMILIES Act, will protect public safety and keep families together by diverting parents from incarceration and providing them the services and programming they need to be successful. The Sentencing Project is pleased to support this critical legislation.”

Justice Strategies Director Judy Greene: “The devastating impact of mass incarceration on families requires effectively-tailored approaches that both reduce prison populations and assist children. Parental incarceration can result in negative outcomes for children as they grow into adulthood including mental health problems, school failure and antisocial and delinquent behavior. Washington and Oregon among other states — are providing a solution. Judges are empowered to allow people charged with criminal offenses who are responsible for care of minor children to avoid imprisonment, instead placing them under community supervision with treatment and services that promote good parenting and healthy child development. The FAMILIES Act will help more states implement this important program saving funds and helping parents, children and their communities thrive.”

Isabel Coronado, a child of incarcerated parents, a citizen of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, and a policy entrepreneur at Next100: “For too long, criminal justice reform has only focused on the incarcerated; we need to focus on the children of the incarcerated who are too often treated as an afterthought. The Families Act does just that. The Families Act is an encouraging example of moving past traditional forms of punishment that inflict years of needless trauma on children, and look to alternatives that keep families together. Through this legislation, we can invest in the next generation and give millions of children the opportunity to thrive despite their parents' conviction.”

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt: “Public safety is much more than making arrests and getting convictions. When the criminal justice system separates a mother, father or guardian from a child because of a non-violent offense we are simultaneously handing down a life-altering sentence to the child. We must do everything to prevent irreparable harm to families and to support parents by providing treatment, services and enhanced community supervision. I strongly support the FAMILIES Act and commend U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal for their initiatives on supporting families and protecting and advancing public safety.” 

Partnership for Safety and Justice (Oregon) Deputy Director Shannon Wight: “The criminal justice system tears families apart when parents and caregivers are incarcerated. Building off local initiatives from Washington and Oregon, the FAMILIES Act is a step in the right direction for the nation. We can  prevent this painful and unnecessary practice of separating families and instead provide support to families so they can grow and thrive.”

Washington Defender Association Executive Director Christie Hedman: “The Washington Defender Association (WDA) is thrilled to support a federal effort to divert parents from prison. Washington was the first state to implement an alternative sentencing program for parents—allowing parents to remain in the community with their children, recognizing that individuals can be held accountable outside of prisons, and the importance of keeping families together in order to reduce negative impacts on children. It’s success led WDA and our community partners to urge legislators to expand eligibility in 2020 so that more parents can participate in this critical program. It is our hope that more states will adopt this option that not only to supports parents and children, but also the long-term well-being of our entire community.”

The Insight Alliance Founder and Director Anna Debenham: “The Insight Alliance has championed the FAMILIES Act since we first learned about it. Keeping families together and providing parents with training and resources is essential to strengthening our communities. This legislation is an important step for our country in addressing the devastating impacts mass incarceration has had.” 

A letter from all endorsing organizations is available here.