Vermont Business Magazine Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Tuesday joined Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and 14 additional Congressional colleagues in reintroducing legislation to create an alternative to incarceration for eligible parents and caregivers, while providing 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.
Over 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent, with 10 million children having experienced parental incarceration during their lives. In Vermont, it is estimated that over the course of a year 6,000 Vermont children will experience parental incarceration. One in seventeen Vermont children have had a parent in prison.
“It’s time to end the international embarrassment of the U.S. locking up more people than any other country on Earth,” said Sen. Sanders. “We must finally put an end to mass incarceration and invest in alternatives, like the FAMILIES Act, that keep families in Vermont and across the country together, strengthens communities, and rebuilds lives instead of destroying them.”
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.
The FAMILIES Act is endorsed by nearly 100 criminal justice, civil rights and child welfare organizations.
Joining Sanders and Wyden in reintroducing the bill in the Senate were U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore.), Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), Cory Booker, (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), and Mazie Hirono, (D-Hawaii.). 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.).