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Plan calls for keeping primary guardians out of prison in nonviolent cases

As lawmakers prepare this fall to debate plans to overhaul the state criminal justice system, one priority for advocates is a proposal that would allow defendants to be spared incarceration for nonviolent offenses if they are the primary caretaker of a child.

The challenge, activists said, is persuading lawmakers to adopt the plan alongside less controversial reforms expected to easily win passage.

“My concern is that we pass one bill and the other one ends up not getting through the Legislature,” said Representative Russell E. Holmes. “If we pass one bill and not the other, you will always hear: ‘We’ve done criminal justice reform.’ ”


Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, spoke this week at Brookview House in Dorchester, where activists spoke in favor of offering alternative punishments to nonviolent offenders who are raising children.

A bill proposing broad reforms to the criminal justice system is expected to be unveiled later this year. That package will probably include recommendations from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which issued a report in February on revamping criminal justice in Massachusetts. The group studied the system at the behest of Governor Charlie Baker, legislative leaders, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

Its report urged the state to better prepare inmates for release from prison and to let more prisoners earn sentence reductions by participating in programs, among other recommendations.

Some activists, however, worry that the forthcoming bill won’t address more contentious areas, including the plan that would give judges the option to keep a caretaker out of prison if they are convicted of a nonviolent offense.

“The fight has just begun. We cannot take this for granted,” said Andrea James, a mother who served a federal prison sentence for wire fraud. She is the founder of Families for Justice as Healing in Jamaica Plain. “This is the vital time . . . so that we can move this forward.”


The alternative sentencing plan is being considered as a separate bill offered by Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Democrat from Belmont. The Joint Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the proposal in June.

If the bill is passed, caretakers convicted of nonviolent offenses could ask judges to consider a punishment that wouldn’t include incarceration, but would require defendants to participate in substance abuse treatment, job training, anger management, and other programming.

“They’re not getting off for their crime, but they’re doing something that we know will lead to better effects for them and for society,” said Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician who leads the Medical Foundation at Health Resources in Action.

The proposal has been examined by Human Impact Partners, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Oakland, Calif. Kim Gilhuly, a program director at the organization, presented a report Wednesday that found that keeping caretakers out of prison is better for the defendants’ children, saves money on incarceration, and keeps communities safer.

Children of incarcerated parents are vulnerable to mental health and behavioral problems, she said.

“Public health science classifies parental incarceration as a specific type of trauma called an adverse childhood experience,” Gilhuly said. “We can’t continue to stack the odds against kids.”

Her research found that about 1 of every 20 children in Boston has had an incarcerated parent, and that 5,665 children are separated from a parent due to imprisonment across the state.


Last year, about 2,500 parents who were sent to prison would have been eligible for the alternative sentences proposed in the bill, Gilhuly said.

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, which represents prosecutors, hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill, said a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, president of the group.

“As with any proposal that impacts our criminal justice system we will be reviewing this bill, engaging in conversation with stakeholders, and offering input as the legislative session progresses,” said Meghan Kelly, the spokeswoman.

Ayana Aubourg, 23, a Cambridge resident, said her father was locked up for 17 years. During that time, Aubourg said, her mother struggled to pay for rent, electricity, food, and medical care.

Visiting her father in prison was traumatizing, said Aubourg, a founder of Sisters Unchained, a Boston organization for women who have been separated from a parent by incarceration.

“Separating and isolating our parents is an act of violence that millions of children in this country have to endure,” she said. “We are suffering and it seems that we are perpetually in a state of grief.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.