When Jazzmin Andrade was incarcerated for the first time, she was separated from her eldest son, who was less than a year old at the time.
“My heart was broken, I was at the point where I wanted to give up on life,” Andrade said. “My baby on his first birthday was in a shelter. I’m sure that’s affected him.”
“I felt like our bond was broken when I got incarcerated,” she added. “He used to act out. ... Of course he did. … He was ripped from his mother.”
Eleven years later, Andrade was incarcerated again. She had three kids at the time, who were all separated from one another, and she still has not been reconnected with her youngest son, who was 2 years old at the time of separation.
On Feb. 17, a bill advocating for community-based, non-custodial sentencing for primary caregivers in Rhode Island was introduced in the state House of Representatives and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Rhode Island community members, including Brown students and alumni, testified in support of the bill during an April 4 hearing.
According to the bill’s text, it would mandate non-custodial sentences when “the defendant is the parent of a child or infant or caregiver of an elderly, disabled or terminally ill family member whose well-being will be negatively affected by the parent’s or caregiver’s absence,” so long as the defendant does not pose an undue risk to the community.
“The carceral state is class-based,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice Bradley Brockmann ’76. “It disproportionately hits races but almost exclusively hits low-income individuals.”
Nearly one in 100 Rhode Island children had an incarcerated parent in 2021, according to a 2022 factbook from Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. For Black children in Rhode Island, that number was closer to one in 20.
In past semesters, Brockmann has taught PHP 1820: “Designing Education for Better Prisoner and Community Health,” where students developed materials and testimonies supporting the bill that were a “direct result of needs expressed by the community,” Brockmann said.
“Incarceration is not going to solve those problems when the issue is a lack of resources,” said Breyanna Watson ’22, who worked with Brockmann through his class.
People are forced to “make choices to survive that are based on poverty,” according to State Rep. Cherie Cruz ’09 MA’10 (D-Pawtucket), one of the primary sponsors of the bill. “The community I represent, that is what we’re facing.”
“Putting people in confinement is not just impacting one individual but has really collateral consequences,” said Emily Ma ’21 MPH’23, who previously took the course with Brockmann.
Separation from a parent through imprisonment was found to be “more detrimental to a child’s well-being than divorce or the death of a parent,” according to a 2014 study.
According to Brockmann, “incarcerated women have a history of sexual, emotional and/or physical abuse that often started from childhood” that frequently manifests in the form of addiction and emotional issues. The vast majority of women who end up incarcerated “are there for relatively minor non-violent crimes,” he explained.
“If the goal of incarceration is to make communities safer, it’s having a counterproductive effect,” said Tyler Melwani ’24, who also took Brockmann’s class. Ma, Watson and Melwani all testified at the April 4 hearing for the bill.
By focusing on community-based solutions, supporters of the legislation also hope to “reduce the need to incarcerate,” Cruz said.
“The community response when we talk about families and parents is overwhelming,” Cruz said. Organizations in support of the bill include Rhode Island KIDS COUNT and the American Civil Liberties Union of RI.
“The biggest opposition was the current judiciary,” she added.
Kathleen Kelly, the R.I. Supreme Court’s general counsel, wrote in testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee that the legislation was “redundant” given existing policies. According to Kelly’s testimony, these judges already receive and consider “sentencing memos from defense counsel, letters from family and friends of the defendant and a pre-sentence report outlining the defendant’s family history, upbringings (and) current obligations,” among other records.
But Cruz said that these procedures are followed on a “subjective basis” and are “not a requirement.”
Kelly did not respond to a request for comment from The Herald at the time of publication.
The bill is currently being held for further study as the committee reviews testimony.
“If it comes back (from being held), I’m optimistic that it’ll be passed,” Cruz said.
“There’s a big potential for change,” Watson said.