Gov. Gavin Newsom today signed into law Senate Bill 394 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. SB 394 is aimed at keeping children with their parents when a parent or guardian is charged with a nonserious, nonviolent crime by allowing counties to create a pretrial caregiver diversion program. Such a program would allow a primary caregiver of a dependent child to enter alternative supervision and avoid incarceration — if both the judge and the prosecutor agrees.
“SB 394 is a commonsense reform,” Skinner said. “When incarceration separates a child from their parent, the outcomes for the child are rarely good. Kids often end up in foster care, with the absence of strong family ties impacting children’s physical, emotional, and psychological health. SB 394 will improve kids’ lives.”
SB 394 won approval in the state Assembly on a 46-14 vote, and in the Senate on a 29-8 vote. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.
SB 394 also recognizes that a child’s separation from a parent can inflict long-lasting negative impacts on parents. Parents separated from their children can suffer similar physical, emotional, and psychological problems and often have difficulty reestablishing the parental bond.
“Pediatricians witness first-hand the trauma and harm to the health and well-being of children when they are separated from parents who are incarcerated. We are thrilled that Gov. Newsom, consistent with his priority of giving each California child the start in life that they deserve, has signed Sen. Skinner’s evidence-based and thoughtful measure to provide alternatives to prison for parents and caregivers that will keep families together and our communities safe,” said Kris Calvin, CEO, American Academy of Pediatrics, California.
Under SB 394, the pretrial diversion program is optional: The presiding judge, district attorney, and public defender all have to agree to establish it in a county. A county’s diversion program might include rehabilitative offerings such as mental health, drug/alcohol treatment, anger management, vocational, educational, and job training services.
A person would only be eligible for diversion if they are the parent or legal guardian of a minor, live in the same household as the child, provide care or financial support, and can substantiate that their absence in the child’s life would be detrimental to the child. The court must also be satisfied that the parent/caregiver does not pose a threat to public safety.
Under SB 394, in each case, the diversion program would only be available to people charged with a misdemeanor or a nonserious, nonviolent felony. A judge must agree that the person is suitable for the program. In addition, a person would not be eligible if the alleged crime was committed against the custodial child.
“Sen. Skinner’s commitment to changing hearts and minds on criminal justice reform has led to meaningful legislation that addresses alternatives to ineffective forms of punishment and instead puts the focus on accountability, rehabilitation, and healing. Gov. Newsom’s and Sen. Skinner’s leadership — in conjunction with the invaluable leadership of the directly impacted families who advocated for SB 394 — reminds us that justice and punishment are not inherently one and the same,” said Erin Haney, senior counsel of #cut50. “We hope that SB 394 helps create an aspirational framework across the country for an evidence-based approach to effective and compassionate justice, in which families impacted by the criminal justice system are given a meaningful chance to not only survive, but thrive.”
Under SB 394, if the defendant does not perform satisfactorily in the diversion program, the prosecuting attorney or probation department may ask the court to reinstate criminal proceedings, or the court may do so on its own.
If the parent/caregiver completes the program successfully, the court will dismiss their original criminal charges. This provision serves as a powerful incentive for parents to participate and complete the program. Studies have shown that an arrest can lead to many negatives, including loss of employment, housing, familial connection, and diminished job prospects.
"Knowing that SB 394 is signed into law, I'm confident that no parent will ever have to endure the pain and trauma that my family endured. Leaving my daughter to self-surrender to federal prison was the hardest moment of my life but since I've been home, we cherish every moment together,” said Ashleigh Carter, who testified in the state Capitol in favor of SB 394. “There is nothing more important in my life than being a mother, and I have hope knowing that parents and primary caregivers will be more than their worst mistake. I applaud a bipartisan coalition in the California Legislature for working together to invest in parents, not prison, and thank Gov. Newsom for his commitment to smart policies that give people a chance."
“SB 394 provides a constructive option to maintain the well-being of both parents and kids,” Skinner added. “It also establishes a path for rehabilitation from a wrongdoing that minimizes the negative outcomes on families and children.”
Sen. Nancy Skinner represents the 9th Senate District. She is also chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Public Safety Budget Committee.