Why a Bill in California Matters to the Nation

Heidi De Leon, a directly impacted advocate for California Senate Bill 394, after graduating with a Masters of Social Work in 2018 – pictured here with her daughter.

A bill that just cleared the California State Assembly would create a new diversion court system that prevents eligible parents and primary caregivers from being incarcerated and having the lifelong stigma of a criminal conviction.

Authored by Dem. Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, SB 394 would set a model for how we can prioritize healing, treatment, and restoration over punishment. And, it would start to transform a justice system that currently results in an estimated 10+ million children nationwide from the impacts of parental incarceration.

When her daughter was only three years old, Ashleigh Carter was forced to leave her job, her home, and her family when she went to prison. But it didn’t have to happen.

After she was arrested for a first-time, drug-related offense, Ashleigh said:

“I was determined to show the courts that I knew I had messed up, and I was not only willing, but I was able and determined to do the right thing — to somehow prove that even though I had made these bad choices, I was not a bad person.”

Ashleigh and her daughter Asia, now 13 (both right) advocating for SB 394, pictured here with Assembly member Reggie Jones Sawyer.

Ashleigh focused on her career, her family, and made tangible changes that were measurably provable to the courts; she was not only earning a living wage and caring for her family, but going above that and earning the esteem of community leaders and law enforcement who even wrote to the courts on her behalf. But as Ashleigh puts it,

“Although I had completely changed my life, for the courts, it was too little too late. I was told I couldn’t get away, I had to pay for what I had done.”

When parents “pay” with overly punitive prison sentences, so do those who depend on them. Ashleigh’s mother and young daughter fell victim to a damaging home invasion once word spread that both mother and father were far away in prison. This incident was unfortunately, only the start of a downward spiral for Ashleigh’s family following her incarceration.

Ashleigh and Asia testifying on behalf of SB 394 before the California Senate Public Safety Committee.

As a state that continues to lead on what’s possible for policy at both the state and federal level, what happens in California, matters. And lawmakers coming together from across the aisle to create an entirely new court system dedicated solely to parents and caregivers at risk of incarceration, is something worth noticing. This collective acknowledgement of unique urgency speaks to the profound and far reaching impact of prison on people and their families.

Just prior to the vote for SB 394, a California Republican lawmaker compared the value of a primary caregiver court to an existing veterans court model:

“I am a veteran. I work with many veteran organizations, and veterans courts are much the same, as what this bill establishes. It’s so important, that when you have an offense, that may be your first offense, that you get special consideration — especially if you’re a primary caregiver, and it’s a family event.”

And his public support was one of the critical factors that led to overwhelming support in the Assembly (43 yes votes!) that pushed the bill past its final stop yesterday before it can reach the Governor’s desk.

Following prison, Heidi reentered society determined to do better for herself, her children, and her community. Well acquainted with the pain points linking the criminal justice system to the foster care system, Heidi earned a Masters in Social work specializing in addiction treatment and reentry services — an industry which she remains a meaningful contributor to. Heidi attributes her success to education, as it pertains to both professional development as well as parenting and familial focused resources.

Heidi’s story begs the question: could she and her now three children have been fast-tracked to success (and spared the irreversible damage prison causes families) were her case handled by a specialized diversion court?

For parents like Heidi and Ashleigh who are eager to recover and rebuild, a primary caregiver pretrial diversion court would mandate resources and programming with an eye toward familial preservation and self development — similar to the way juvenile dependency court was designed to operate.

And for caregivers who don’t cooperate with those services, a judge would maintain the ability to reopen a criminal case. But for those who do, diversion court would create the space for strengthening faulty foundations without forcing a caregiver to abandon their house.

A national bipartisan initiative to smartly and safely reduce our incarcerated population. Co-Founded by @VanJones68, a program of the Dream Corps.

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