Keeping Kids and Parents Together: A Healthier Approach to Sentencing in MA, TN, LA

April 2019

We partnered with Free Hearts in Tennessee, Operation Restoration in Louisiana, and Families for Justice & Healing in Massachusetts to research the health and equity impacts of expanding the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration for convicted parents in each of those states. We produced state-specific reports and fact sheets to inform policy decision-making at the state level on this important issue.


We are supporting organizations led by formerly incarcerated women in 3 states (Tennessee,  Louisiana, and Massachusetts) to strategically bring a public health perspective into their campaigns to pass legislation to keep parents who are caretakers with their children through alternatives to incarceration.

Providing safe, stable, and nurturing environments for children and families is a value most of us can agree on. However, criminal justice practices that separate children from their mothers and fathers are harmful. The justice system’s default approach tears apart families, hurts children and parent-child relationships, and harms health. Instead, increasing judges’ discretion to authorize alternatives to incarceration that include treatment instead of prison or jail where appropriate can keep families intact.

Our work consisted of two parts:

  • We’ve conducted research to evaluate the health and equity impacts of allowing a judge to sentence eligible primary caretakers (mainly parents) to community-based supervision or community-based programs.
  • We’ve mobilized health professionals as a constituency to advocate for and endorse primary caretakers bills in each state — with the goal of advancing criminal justice reforms that place health and wellbeing at their center.
Progress Updates
  • Tennessee House Bill 1449 / Senate Bill 0895 is on its way to become law and closely mirrors the bills we reviewed in our research last year.
  • The Massachusetts Primary Caretakers Bill passed into law on April 13, 2018 as part of a large omnibus criminal justice system reform law.
About the Primary Caretakers bills

The bills are slightly different in each state, but they basically expand the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration for parents of dependent children who are convicted. This would enable them to care for their families while healing and advancing their lives in addition to dealing with the consequences of their conviction. Legislators would drastically improve these families’ lives by passing this bill.

The numbers are manageable in these states: depending on the state, between 1,800 to 3,700 people currently incarcerated in state prisons and county jails are parents who would’ve been eligible for community-based alternatives had they been sentenced under this law.