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

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici today reintroduced legislation that would 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.

“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.”

“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.”

“The United States imprisons more of its population than any other country. This mass incarceration destroys lives, families, and communities. We need a criminal justice system that is fair and humane. We need reform, especially when it comes to parents and caregivers,” said Blumenauer. “Ripping families apart does more harm than good. As we try to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, our FAMILIES Act, modeled after Oregon’s successful program, will provide an alternative form of justice that keeps families together.”

“In our criminal justice system, children are often separated from their parents and caregivers,” said Bonamici. “Too many families are dealing with the trauma and long-term damages caused by separation during incarceration, leading to lifelong challenges. For several years, the Family Alternative Sentencing Program in Oregon has reduced recidivism and reliance on the foster care system. This legislation, modeled on the Oregon program, will reduce recidivism while keeping families together and providing them with the support services they need.”

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 that have kept hundreds of families together and been key to reducing recidivism.

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 here.

Legislative text is here.

Joining Wyden and Merkley in reintroducing the bill in the Senate were U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. Joining Blumenauer and Bonamici in the House were U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., 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., and Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa.

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.”

A letter from all endorsing organizations is here.