"Keeping parents out of prison is an important first step toward strengthening families and protecting children," OJJDP Acting Administrator Chyrl Jones said on January 24, as she opened a 2-day virtual listening session on the Office's Family-Based Alternative Sentencing program. OJJDP launched the program in fiscal year (FY) 2021, basing it on a "simple" premise, the Acting Administrator said: "You can't serve families by separating them."
More than 5 million children and youth in the United States have experienced separation from a primary caregiver or parent due to incarceration. The listening session explored sentencing alternatives that maintain public safety while preserving family integrity—keeping children and parents together. It was planned and moderated by Kathy Mitchell, OJJDP Intervention Division Program Manager; criminal justice reform advocate William McColl, founder and CEO of McColl Strategies, LLC; and Isabel Coronado, a consultant with the Center for Law and Social Policy.
"If a young life must be touched by the juvenile justice system, it must be improved by it."
—OJJDP Acting Administrator Chyrl Jones
The online event allowed participants to connect with OJJDP in real time to share insights and opinions on family-based programs that would divert parents or caregivers from prison. OJJDP engaged with nearly 900 attendees on the first day alone. Presenters described best practices from existing programs, and many shared their lived experiences. Two panel discussions featured youth and parents who discussed the impact of incarceration on their families and relationships.
Recent college graduate Ava Lantiere described being labeled "the girl with daddy issues who would never amount to anything," and the bullying and stigma she endured at school—from peers and teachers alike. "I'm here today speaking so that kids like me don't have to wait 20 or more years to connect with ... and be constantly supported by their parents," she said.
Another panelist, Ashley Jackson, was a baby when her father entered federal prison. He had gone to the police "to turn himself in for what he thought was a minor misdemeanor," she said. "He kissed me and my mother and told us that he would be right back." Ms. Jackson's father ultimately served 31 years. While she said she felt "grateful" for the relationship she and her father developed through letters, phone calls, and visits, she could not "ignore the challenges and the amount of stress and anxiety that I had to fight through and push through as a very young girl."
Other panels featured community advocates and representatives from states implementing their own family-based models. In Washington State, a substance use bill allows qualifying parents to avoid or transfer from prison. Participants attend community-based programs that address their unique needs, such as substance use treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. The Women’s Community Justice Association in New York follows a deferred-sentencing model. Women charged with felonies are diverted to a community-based facility, where they live with their children and receive supportive services. Those who comply with the program have their charges dismissed; those who do not comply face prison time.
The listening session closed with an opportunity for attendees to offer comments. OJJDP will consider their feedback as the Office explores the potential national implementation of new family-based alternatives to sentencing.
In FY 2021, OJJDP awarded $1.5 million to two jurisdictions under the Family-Based Alternative Sentencing program. Read about this and other FY 2021 Office awards in the January/February 2022 issue of OJJDP News @ a Glance.