Justice Strategies' Parental Diversion Presentation to the Washington State House Public Safety Committee

On November 17, 2017, Justice Strategies was asked to present to the Washington State Legislature's House Public Safety Committee on the importance of parental diversion through alternative sentencing programs. Below is our full statement provided to the legislators:

Dear Committee Members,

My name is Lillian Hewko and I am a research and policy analyst with Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to providing analysis and solutions to advocates and policymakers pursuing more humane and cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration reform. We conduct research on sentencing and correctional policy, the political economy of incarceration, and the detention and imprisonment of immigrants.

I want to start by noting this image by Strong Families, showing a mother and daughter connecting beyond prison walls. Unfortunately, instead of supporting family connection, our criminal justice system often operates to sever the ties and relationships between incarcerated individuals and their families. No matter the number of years, the time spent away missing moments of childhood can’t be recaptured-and these missed experiences may be crucial for a child’s well-being and development.

Washington State is the leader in the creation of a model program that supports families. Justice Strategies has pointed to the Family Offender Sentencing Alternative and the Community Parenting Alternative when advocating at the federal level and before the United Nations’ CERD Committee (Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination). However, we have some concerns with the program’s current limitations, and the reality that in following Washington’s lead, other states will enact similar laws.

Image from Building Community, Building Hope film series.

First, Justice Strategies believes the limitations created by the custody requirements are rooted in archaic definitions of the family. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 79.8% of families do not fit the nuclear family model. As families evolve, so should our laws supporting our families.

Our families take many forms, like blended families, families with non-custodial caregivers, LGBTQ families, chosen families, intergenerational families, and mutli-national families.

Studies have shown that families of color are most likely to be intergenerational and access kinship care outside of immediate family members. For many LGBTQ families, many are not married and are are raising children who may not have a biological or legal connection to one parent.

Incarceration also leads parents to make custody decisions where parents remain in roles that are “extra-legal.” For example, parents in prison may still retain visits and future parenting roles, but have relinquished their rights though open adoptions, or have passed off legal custody through third-party custody or guardianships.

In order to not leave families out, the definition of parent must be inclusive and recognize the bonds of all Washington Families.

Second, the alternatives are limited to people serving time for “non-violent” crimes. Much of our discussions and solutions around mass incarceration have focused on individuals with non-violent crimes. But, numbers from the Department of Justice Statistics show that nationwide about 54 percent of people in our state prisons are charged with violent crimes and are left out of reform efforts, with only a couple recent and effective exceptions with programs being tested out in Brooklyn, NY and Richmond, California. That means that if we let out everyone with a non-violent crime tomorrow, mass incarceration wouldn’t end and we would still have more people incarcerated in the US than any other advanced democracy.

Our public is often unaware that violent crime has actually gone down as Hollywood, news, and tough on crime politicians often place greater emphasis on stories that elicit fear. Further, contrary to what we believe, studies show that people convicted of sex offenses and homicide, the most serious violent crimes, are least likely to have prior criminal records and have some of the lowest rates of recidivism upon release.

Prisons have largely failed to make us safer. As a public safety report by The Pew Project showed in 2012, our failed tough on crime approaches are based on an unproved theory that if the punishment is harsh, individuals will be less likely to commit crime. But, these policies fail to recognize the underlying reasons studies show as to why people, and specifically young people living in poverty, get involved in gangs and or behavior that leads to violent acts.

From a recent Vera Institute of Justice report:

“Prison is also limited as a tool because incarceration treats violence as a problem of ‘dangerous’ individuals and not as a problem of social context and history. Most violence is not just a matter of individual pathology — it is created. Power drives violence. Inequity drives violence. Lack of opportunity drives violence. Shame and isolation drive violence. And like so many conditions known all too well to public health professionals, violence itself drives violence.”

Although more palpable to start our reform with individuals who have non-violent crimes, more media attention has been given to the fact that we need to also find solutions that support humanity and dignity for all people in prison.

Finally, decades of research documenting the detrimental impact of parental incarceration on children has shown a close yet complex connection between parental incarceration and adverse outcomes for children. As with the punitive consequences of our mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration policies, the impact of parental incarceration falls disproportionately on children of color.

Programs such as CPA and FOSA are opportunities for mitigating the pain and costs of incarceration. This opportunity should be extended to more familes in Washington State. The pictures provided here are of parents with violent crimes. The father, Shayne, would have been ineligible for FOSA and almost lost his parental rights if not for winning his appeal and later getting clemency. He’s now parenting & running a successful business, and in 2013 helped Washington pass the children of incarcerated parents bill.

The two mothers, Tanya and Minna pictured are incarcerated at WCCW. These photos were taken at a holiday event at WCCW. They will both return to the community in the next year, however due to their charges, they are ineligible to spend that last year in an effective program that supports families and saves our state money, as they are deemed unworthy of such support.

As most people (95%) in state prison will be released at some point and return to their communities, instead of denying opportunities, it is important that we find ways to keep people out or prison in the first place or support family connections through a  parent’s incarceration as they return home.


Lill M. Hewko


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