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Washington and Oregon Lawmakers to Introduce Federal Legislation Advocating for Family Diversion Programs as Prison Alternative

February 17, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Mother and child on a beach

Jenny Iredale (right) with her daughter Shelby. Iredale completed Washington’s Community Parenting Sentencing Alternative program in 2019. The program allowed her to spend the remainder of her prison sentence on community supervision so she could take care of her daughter. (Photo Courtesy of Jenny Iredale)

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OLYMPIA – Jenny Iredale missed a huge chunk of her daughter’s life while she was incarcerated. Shelby was only 6 when Iredale went to prison for identify theft and forgery charges, and 10 when Iredale transferred into Washington state’s Community Parenting Alternative (CPA) program. CPA allowed Iredale to serve the final ten months of her sentence at home, on electronic home monitoring.

In that time, Iredale completed an associate degree in addiction studies, landed a job as a substance abuse counselor and saved enough money to buy a house. Iredale says the time she was able to spend at home instead of behind bars allowed her to reconnect with her daughter and get her life back on track.

“It allowed me to rejoin my family,” Iredale said. “I was missing a pretty crucial time in her (Shelby’s) life. Prior to incarceration, I never missed a day. I’m sure there were nights when she cried herself to sleep when I was away. Being in this program added structure and accountability for me getting out of prison. I think my daughter is proud of me for being as involved as I could and our relationship continues to evolve.”

Prison sentencing alternative programs like CPA, and the Family and Offender Sentencing Alternative (FOSA), have been in Washington state since 2010. Oregon started similar programs (pdf) 2015.

Now lawmakers in both states want to make alternative sentencing programs like these a national standard. Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, are expected to back proposed legislation called the FAMILIES Act.

FAMILIES stands for Finding Alternatives to Mass Incarceration: Lives Improved by Ending Separation. The FAMILIES Act (HR 8774 and S 4916) would allow federal judges to divert parents and caregivers of minor children from prison into comprehensive support programs if they meet certain criteria. People facing incarceration who are also expectant parents or primary caregivers for elderly family members would also be considered for this type of alternative sentencing.

In lieu of prison time, participants would be able to remain with family members dependent on their care while receiving services such as drug treatment, job training, parenting skills, education, health care, mental health services and housing assistance.

The bill would create a federal family-based alternative sentencing program and a $20 million authorization for similar programs at the state level. Washington and Oregon are among a small handful of states that currently offer parenting sentence alternatives.

The FAMILIES Act was previously introduced in November of 2020 during the 116th Congress, but did not receive a vote. Lawmakers are hoping to reintroduce the legislation during the 117th Congress, likely in the late spring or early summer of 2021. The 117th Congress began Jan. 3 and runs for two years.

“America’s criminal justice system is failing families, too often defaulting to unnecessary prison time that rips families apart and so often results in irreparable trauma,” Wyden said in a joint press release with Jayapal. “Instead of needlessly incarcerating parents and caregivers, we need to help folks rebuild their lives and help families thrive together. Prioritizing families—not prisons—will make our communities safer.”

Jayapal also voiced her support of the legislation.

“As we prepare for a new administration who campaigned on reforming a broken criminal justice system that disproportionally impacts Black and Brown families, we need to prioritize policies that shrink the world’s largest prison population, deliver humane alternatives to mass incarceration and strengthen communities.”

How State Programs Work

Washington’s two parenting sentencing alternative programs, FOSA and CPA, allow some incarcerated individuals who are parents of minor children the chance to avoid prison or, if already incarcerated, transfer from prison to electronic monitoring to finish their prison sentence at home so they can take care of their children.

FOSA gives judges the option of waiving a sentence within the standard sentence range and impose one year of community custody, along with specific conditions for treatment and programs. CPA allows the Department of Corrections (DOC) to transfer a qualifying individual from prison to electronic home monitoring for up to the last 12 months of their sentence.

The Department of Corrections works with an interagency committee made up with correctional staff and experts from the Department of Children Youth and Families’ Early Learning division to screen eligible program participants.

To be eligible, the incarcerated person has to be a legal guardian and not have any convictions of a violent or sexual offense, nor be subject to any deportation orders. During their time in the programs, participants must adhere to court mandated conditions. They’re also given case managers whose job is to make sure they’re demonstrating parenting is a priority in their daily living.

“As a traditional community corrections officer, my interaction with families would be limited,” said Amanda Lease, who works in the department’s FOSA program in Everett. “You’re not there to support the family first, you are there to support the individual first. In this program we reverse that. We work within their family, within their house, because if that does not work, they’re not going to succeed when they eventually return to society.”

The DOC provides quarterly reports to the court on a participant’s progress. Judges have the authority to modify someone’s conditions of participation, or even revoke someone from the program. If someone is revoked, they are sent back to prison to serve their sentence and time spent in the sentencing alternative programs is not credited toward their confinement time.

Washington State Success

Susan Leavell, senior administrator for the DOC’s Reentry Division, says while the overall goal of alternative sentencing programs is to reduce a growing prison population, parenting sentencing alternatives were designed with families in mind.

“Children of incarcerated parents are significantly more likely to end up in the criminal justice system themselves,” Leavell said. “When we started these programs, we knew we needed to have a different focus. Before, it was centered only around the needs of the incarcerated individual. The phrase ‘when it is in the best interest of the child,’ though not a legal definition, made us realize we needed to focus on the strengths of building a human center, that human centerpiece. Without the dedication of our partners and staff, we wouldn’t be successful.”

Since the parenting alternative sentencing launched in Washington in 2010, the programs have had measured success. The combined recidivism rate for both sentencing alternative programs as of March 2020, was 11%. It’s significantly lower than the current state recidivism rate (pdf) of 33.5%.

Incarcerated participants say alternative sentencing programs are a great motivator to stay out of trouble.

“For these parents, our livelihood is our kids,” Iredale said. “Most people who are incarcerated for any amount of time don’t have the desire to separate from their families again and it (The CPA program) is a great program when you’re ready.”

Impact on Families

Proponents of the legislation say alternative sentencing would save money on the cost of incarceration. In Washington state, the combined cost of incarcerating individuals in prisons and work releases during fiscal year 2019 (pdf) was $725.8 million. The Vera Institute of Justice did an analysis in 2015 of 45 states and found that Americans spent nearly $43 billion on incarceration costs.

Iredale adds alternative sentencing programs not only saves taxpayer dollars on incarceration, but also provides relief for family members who have become unintended victims of the criminal justice system.

“They’ve been handed a burden,” Iredale said. “It’s not cheap having a family member in prison. They have to take time out of their lives to make sure visits happen, and it costs money to travel.”

The Prison Policy Initiative, an organization working to reduce mass incarceration, estimates American families spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls. That figure does not include the cost to travel to and from a correctional facility, or any lodging costs family members incur.

Proponents of alternative prison programs say they also allow a respite for family members who have to step in as caregivers in the incarcerated person’s stead.

Iredale’s parents had custody of her daughter while Iredale was in prison.

“They basically had to become parents again,” Iredale said. “When family members take care of our kids there’s added stress.”

Since completing the CPA in 2019, Iredale has been an advocate for sentencing alternative programs and has spoken with lawmakers about her own experiences.

“It’s closed-minded thinking that people who make mistakes can’t make better life choices,” Iredale said. “When they get out of prison, they could become your neighbor. We need to drop this ugly attitude that we are our past, instead of moving forward. It’s better to give people options to make better choices. You need to offer something for them to work toward.”

Whether or not a federal parenting sentencing alternative becomes a reality remains to be seen, but for formerly incarcerated parents in Washington and Oregon like Iredale, they’re a godsend. She says she’s looking forward to being in her daughter’s life in her teenage years and into adulthood.

“I do think she (Shelby) can carry her level of respect for me because she’s walked inside the prison during visits and the sound of the slamming doors are not too far from our minds. We haven’t forgotten where we came from, and we have a healthy relationship now.”

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