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

March 2018

With project partners, we produced fact sheets and reports evaluating the health and equity impacts of expanding the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration for convicted parents. We’re also mobilizing public and clinical health practitioners to join state legislation campaigns in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Louisiana.


We are supporting organizations led by formerly incarcerated women in 3 states (Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Louisiana) 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 consists of two parts:

  • We’re conducting 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’re mobilizing 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
  • The Massachusetts Primary Caretakers Bill passed into law on April 13, 2018 as part of a large omnibus criminal justice system reform law!
  • The Louisiana bill (HB264) is still in play — read Dr. Eric Grigg’s recent op-ed in support of it.
  • The Tennessee bill did not pass this year. Free Hearts and others are planning on reintroducing it next year.
Get Involved

Health professionals in Louisiana: sign on to support the introduction of primary caretaker legislation to the Louisiana legislature.

If you’re a health professional in Louisiana or Tennessee, contact Kim Gilhuly ( to learn more about how you can support primary caretakers legislation in your state.

Learn more about the Health Instead of Punishment Program, one of our key initiatives to advance health and equity.

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.