Mothers Convicted of Felonies May Get Chance to Stay Out of Prison

May 8, 2013- NY Times

There are few experiences more unsettling for a child than watching a mother being taken away to prison for months or years. For years, women’s advocates have worked to establish alternatives for mothers convicted of crimes, saying the lives of their children become so upended they often end up in jail themselves.

On Wednesday, the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, with leaders from various women’s groups, announced a new program that represents one of the most ambitious efforts yet: It will allow a carefully chosen group of women who plead guilty to felonies to remain in their own homes with their children.

Georgia Lerner, executive director of the Women’s Prison Association, a New York City nonprofit organization that will administer the program, known as JusticeHome, said she believed it would be one of the first of its kind in the country. It will start with 45 women screened by prosecutors in the district attorney’s office to ensure they present little danger to the public.

“In most cases, women are the primary caretakers,” she said. “When men get arrested, children stay with the mother. When women get arrested, there’s a much higher risk that the children wind up in foster care.”

The program, financed with $430,000 from the city, follows a similar effort in 2008, when the district attorney’s office opened a small residence on the edge of Brownsville, Brooklyn, called Drew House, where five mothers live with their children instead of spending time in jail.

Mr. Hynes, who is seeking re-election amid criticism, has highlighted his record of promoting alternatives to incarceration. He has set up several such programs for men and women, like assignment to residential drug treatment centers rather than jail. At the news conference on Wednesday, he repeatedly emphasized how wasteful prison was for those imprisoned and for taxpayers. “The correctional system is a gross misnomer — it corrects nothing,” he said.

Sending a mother and two children to Drew House costs $34,000, compared with $129,000 to keep her in prison for a year and to put those children in foster care, Mr. Hynes said. The stay-at-home program will cost even less, $10,000 to $15,000 per woman, per year, Ms. Lerner said.

The Obama administration has been encouraging such efforts to steer nonviolent criminals away from jail. Mr. Hynes and Ms. Lerner showcased a letter they had received from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of President Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “By supporting these women as they make their way back into their communities, through housing assistance, education and employment aid, and help navigating the child welfare system, we can strive to keep families together and make our communities safer,” the letter said.

JusticeHome will be available only to women, mostly mothers, who plead guilty to felonies in which they face a minimum of six months in prison. They will be visited several times a week by case managers from the Women’s Prison Association, receive counseling about jobs, schools and management of their homes and children. Some will be required to have treatment for drug addiction and mental illness.

With a judge’s approval, a woman’s traditional sentencing will be delayed, and if she completes the program successfully, the charges against her will be dismissed. The association anticipates that an average woman will spend six to eight months under its supervision.

Ms. Lerner acknowledged that the women’s homes and neighborhoods are often the source of the sparks or enticements that lead to drugs or crime. But she said, “Our goal is to help them change the way they function in those environments so they are able to live in a safe way.” Even if a woman goes to prison, she said, she will eventually have to cope in her home environment.

Other leaders of women’s advocacy groups were also on hand to support the new program. Ana L. Oliveira, president of the New York Women’s Foundation, said research indicated that “investing in women lifts whole families and breaks the cycle” of family imprisonment.

Statistics provided by the Women’s Prison Association show that over 200,000 American women are behind bars and 800,000 are under parole, probation or other supervision.

A study by a team from Columbia University’s School of Nursing of the nine women who resided in Drew House between 2008 to 2011 showed that six had successfully completed their “court mandate.” The study recommended that the authorities “scale up and replicate this model to serve more families.”

Thanks to Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project for bringing this to my attention!