Sending parents to prison imposes life-long consequences on their children. I know because I am one of them. When I was 14 months old, my parents left me with a babysitter and drove a getaway car in an armed robbery. Three men died, including two police officers. My mom was sentenced to twenty years to life; my dad to 75 years to life—he is still incarcerated. Like so many children of incarcerated parents I suffered horribly—in an instant, my family was gone and I was left alone. I showed the trauma and emotional suffering through anger, temper tantrums, tears, and difficulty in school. caused by that kind of sudden and irreparable separation. Statistics show all too well the economic, social, and developmental consequences so many of us face.
There are more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and most of them are parents. There are 2.7 million children with at least one parent in prison or jail and some studies suggest those children are at a 6 times higher risk of going to prison themselves. As with other aspects of the criminal justice system this burden has a clear racial dimension: 70 percent of children with incarcerated parents are black or brown, victimized both by their parents’ choices and society’s commitment to meting out the harshest possible punishments. If we are truly dedicated to holding people who commit crimes accountable and enhancing public safety, we must find ways to end mass incarceration. We must break the cycle, not only of a recidivism rate that hovers around 66 percent but also of intergenerational incarceration.
SB 394, introduced by California state senator Nancy Skinner, is a significant step in the right direction. SB 394 would create a diversion program for primary caregiver parents of minor children charged with non-violent crimes. Under the bill, which passed the Senate and is now pending before the Assembly, if an eligible defendant completes a lengthy and rigorous diversion program that includes parenting classes they can earn a dismissal of the nonviolent charges. Skinner’s initiative is welcome leadership after decades of rising prison populations have normalized parental incarceration. Incentivizing parents to care for their dependent children helps break the cycle of incarceration and keep our communities safer; it prevents crimes from being committed by their children years down the road.
I was lucky. A stable, loving, and supportive family adopted me and helped me overcome the trauma, the stigma, and the loss of my parents. Most children aren’t so lucky. Growing up in prison visiting rooms, I befriended countless other children. Many of those children are behind bars today.
There are those who argue that diversion for primary caregiver parents is “soft on crime,” and gives unearned leniency to those who have children—or even encourages them to break the law. But there is little, if any, evidence that people who commit crimes are aware of the possible punishments, much less the possibility of diversion. People commit crimes thinking they are not going to get caught, or not thinking at all, which is why even the death penalty has failed to serve as an effective deterrent. The law already recognizes and privileges family bonds in myriad other areas including visitation and child custody. In fact, protecting innocent children by encouraging at risk parents to take parenting classes and avoid incarceration is good social policy, not discrimination.
It is time to abandon the failed tough on crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, for the first time in generations, political leaders from across the political spectrum are focused on fixing the destructive and bloated system. In California, popular support for reform has resulted in a barrage of smart on crime legislation out of Sacramento. SB 394 is a prime example. Sadly, elected prosecutors across the state inexplicably insist on resisting many of these new laws, bucking the trend to reduce incarceration and enhance public safety through data-driven, cost-effective policies. That includes the powerful California District Attorney Association (CDAA), which is opposing SB 394.
Even if SB 394 overcomes this resistance, it is up to local counties to fund it and some counties will opt out. I would opt in. If SB 394 fails, a forward looking District Attorney could create an identical diversion program. That’s what I would do.
San Francisco is now in the midst of a historic District Attorney race—the first time in over a century with no incumbent. Several of the candidates have branded themselves “progressive prosecutors.” It’s time to walk the walk. Whether SB 394 becomes law or not I am committed to establishing a diversion program for primary caregiver parents, and to standing up to the conservative CDAA to fight for progressive, smart on crime legislation. I urge the other candidates to make the same commitment today.
Chesa Boudin is a deputy public defender and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney in the November 2019 election.