Tenn. legislature passes bill making primary caregiver status a consideration in sentencing to keep families together

The Tennessee General Assembly voted to pass Senate Bill 0985/House Bill 1449, sponsored by Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) and Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis). The bill passed the House with a vote of 91 to five, and the Senate on April 18, with a vote of 27 to four. SB0985, the Primary Caregiver bill, which garnered bipartisan support, requires consideration of community-based alternatives to incarceration and the benefit imposing such alternatives may provide the community when the offense is nonviolent and the defendant is the primary caregiver of a dependent child.

The legislation was conceived by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers seeking positive change and healthier outcomes for their families and communities. Parental incarceration is recognized as an ‘adverse childhood experience’ (ACE). A growing body of research reveals that children exposed to ACEs are at a greater risk of lifelong physical, mental, and behavioral health problems. This comes at great social and economic cost to individuals, families, and communities, especially people of color experiencing higher rates of incarceration.

“One of the most traumatic things that can happen to a child is to be taken away from their mother when she is the person they trust the most,” said Jawharrah Bahar, a formerly incarcerated mother and organizer for Free Hearts, an organization that led the community advocacy efforts for this legislation. “And one of the hardest things for a mother to do is rebuild the bond with their child again after years of separation.”

“Though Tennessee is a leader among states in parental incarceration, it has taken an important step to remedy this and prioritize keeping families together by passing this Primary Caregiver bill,” said Dawn Harrington, executive director of Free Hearts. “We celebrate the passage of this bill and what it means for families while also knowing that Tennessee still has a lot of work to do for lasting change, including the need to divert funds spent to incarcerate large numbers of Tennesseans into community-based alternatives apart from the criminal legal system. We will all benefit in the long run when we choose to invest in people and communities, not prisons.”

While the bill applies to all primary caregivers, it would largely affect women because a majority of incarcerated women are primary caregivers of dependent children and the vast majority of women are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

“Women are too often left behind in criminal justice reform efforts and Tennessee has been no exception. We have seen the number of women incarcerated in the state increase enough to grow the overall prison population, even while the number of men incarcerated decreased” said Alex Chambers, a community advocate with Free Hearts. “It is hard to overstate the need for public policy that takes gender seriously in efforts to end mass incarceration like the Primary Caregiver bill does.”