California lawmakers are set to vote next week on a bill that would allow parents who commit misdemeanors and some felonies to go to rehab instead of prison.
Senate Bill 394, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would give local judges and prosecutors the option of creating a diversion program for parents who are primary caregivers for a child 18 years old or younger and commit a “nonserious, nonviolent” felony or lesser crime, as described in state law.
It’s drawn support from advocates for reducing mass incarceration and criticism from a prominent state prosecutor’s association.
Creating a diversion program for parents is a priority for Ashleigh Carter of Long Beach, who has testified in support of the bill.
She spent five years in prison for using and selling drugs. Her daughter, Asia, was just 3 when her mother was locked up.
“My life was totally rattled by incarceration,” said Carter, 35. “When I returned home, I had to get to know an entirely new person.”
The mother and daughter are in a good place now. They’ve worked their way “through the muck,” as Carter called it, to rebuild trust.
“People are starting to wake up and realize that the punishment model has not served us, that we have to move towards a more rehabilitative model,” Carter said. “We have to community infrastructure that support our people and treat them holistically.”
The bill is opposed by the California District Attorneys Association.
Larry Morse, the group’s legislative director, said it supports the concept of diversion programs, noting DAs around the state have created their own programs for veterans, homeless individuals, those with substance abuse disorders and others.
But, he said, there “are so many loopholes in this legislation, it gives us very grave concern.” As an example, Morse said judges would not be required to verify whether a parent is truly a primary caregiver.
Also, he said the bill’s language about “nonserious, nonviolent” offenses is misleading. That description is a legal definition used by California, but includes everything from minor thefts to felony assaults.
Given the loopholes, he said not a single DA across the state has supported the bill.
Erin Haney is senior counsel with #cut50, a criminal justice reform group backing the legislation. She said parents selected for diversion would be required to complete programs such as family counseling, anger management, job training, and substance abuse and mental health treatment.
“It looks for ways to support those primary caregivers and their families, rather than simply to punish them,” Haney said. “Diversion courts are accountability courts. So, this is not by any means a get out of jail free card.”
The state Senate approved it 30 to 2 in May. A month later, the Assembly public safety committee passed it 6 to 0.
The full Assembly is expected to vote on it next week.
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