(The Center Square) – Oregon’s Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, and U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., have introduced legislation that would create an alternative to incarceration for parents and caregivers while providing them with access to government programs for education, employment services, parenting skills, mental health, and substance abuse services in addition to health care, housing assistance, and other public benefits that will help their children remain safely at home.

Critics say government programs can’t turn criminal parents into the supportive caregivers children need.

The Finding Alternatives to Mass Incarceration: Lives Improved by Ending Separation (FAMILIES) Act would allow federal judges to divert parents and caregivers for the elderly and disabled from incarceration despite any crimes they have been convicted of.

“Children should not be subjected to trauma and uncertainty caused by a broken criminal justice system, which at times needlessly splits up families,” Wyden said. “I’m proud to once again join Representative Jayapal in introducing legislation to expand the work of successful programs in our home states to reduce mass incarceration nationwide and help keep more families together.”

The FAMILIES Act is modeled after programs in Oregon and Washington state. In Oregon a 2021 report to the legislature found that over several years 15% of participants had failed the program and were sentenced to jail anyway or had absconded from the program and were subject to arrest. More than 20% of participants in the program had successfully graduated.

Critics say that if the justification for the program is making life better for children, the program likely won’t work. “A hard look at the data raises serious questions about whether parents convicted of crimes would be reliable sources of economic and emotional support in the home,” said Rafael Mangual, Senior Fellow and Head of Research, Policing & Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute and author of “Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most.” “High-quality research suggests that, on net, anti-social parents are a negative for children in that children of anti-social parents do worse than other children on a host of measures; and a good bit of evidence suggests that many criminal parents are going to also be antisocial.”

Advocates of the law disagree. “Through this legislation, we can invest in the next generation and provide millions of children with the opportunity to thrive, despite their parents’ convictions,” Isabel Coronado, chair of the Campaign to Keep Families Together.

Evaluations of the success of the Oregon program have focused on the parents and whether kids stayed out of foster care, not outcomes for the children in terms of pregnancy, education, employment and involvement with the criminal justice system.