Garnering Support for Policy Change: Family Impact Statement

This blog focuses on the needs of children and how Family Impact Statements (FIS) can ensure that the needs of children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system are considered when important criminal justice decisions are made; it’s a story of progress and ongoing work to be done. A Family Impact Statement contains information about a defendant’s minor children and parenting responsibilities and describes how various sentencing options might affect these. When public safety is not compromised, FIS may support an alternative to incarceration or a shorter sentence length to minimize collateral consequences. However, FIS are not commonly used and garnering support for policy and practice change can be challenging. Here, we share how the Osborne Association’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents collaborated with New York State (NYS) probation professionals to encourage the inclusion of FIS in pre-sentencing investigation reports for the courts. Ultimately, we rebranded FIS as a Family Responsibility Statement (FRS) to garner the support needed to encourage the inclusion of information about a defendant’s children and parenting responsibilities in pre-sentence investigation reports developed by probation officers in New York State.

As we began our efforts, we were often asked why the needs of a defendant’s children should be considered. Decisions made within the criminal justice system, including sentencing decisions, have ripple effects on other systems (e.g., child welfare, public health, government budgets, etc.) on communities, families, and the approximately 10 million American children who have experienced their parent’s incarceration or their parent being under some form of community correctional supervision. Children of incarcerated parents are at risk and without proper support these children may experience academic challenges, homelessness, infant mortality, and health and mental health issues. According to Wakefield & Wildeman’s Children of the Prison Boom (2014), the racial disparity in U.S. incarceration rates is exacerbating black-white inequality among children growing up in the era of mass incarceration. This social inequality will likely follow them into adulthood, further perpetuating inequality in America for generations to come. For these reasons, it is imperative to reduce mass incarceration and seek ways to minimize the effects on children and families when incarceration is necessary. Judges are better positioned to consider the potential collateral consequences and family impact of various sentencing decisions when they have information about a defendant’s minor children and parenting responsibilities.

The NY Initiative works in partnership with the very systems we hope to affect change in; thus, we sought to work collaboratively with New York probation professionals rather than seek legislative or regulatory change. While state legislation or regulatory reform would be required to add a stand-alone FIS section to pre-sentencing investigation reports, it is not needed to include such information into the existing report format.

First, we developed a FIS fact sheet to raise awareness and to identify potential partners. Through this effort, we established a productive partnership with Robert Iusi, Director of Probation for Warren County, NY and a member of the NYS Council of Probation Administrators (COPA). This relationship with Mr. Iusi, along with those we cultivated with the San Francisco Adult Probation Department, U.S. Probation Department Eastern District of NY, and the NYC Department of Probation (all of which use or are considering using FIS), led us to collaborate with the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services Office of Probation and Correctional Alternatives (OPCA) Director of Training for all counties in NYS. Recognizing the value of having information about a defendant’s minor children and parenting responsibilities, OPCA committed to highlighting FIS as a best practice in the mandatory Fundamentals of Probation Practice (FPP) training for new probation officers if the New York State Council of Probation Administrators (COPA) approved. Mr. Iusi, a COPA member, was a critical liaison between Osborne and COPA. He raised awareness about FIS and distributed FIS factsheets to solicit feedback from COPA, probation directors, field officers, and district attorneys.

Addressing apprehensions about FIS was a critical step in garnering support for practice change. We learned that some probation officers already include this information, while others expressed concern that incorporating FIS into pre-sentencing investigation reports would add work and lengthen the investigation process. Some were concerned that FIS would prioritize the defendant's family circumstances over the victim’s family circumstances, thereby eclipsing the statutorily required Victim Impact Statement. Working with OPCA and Mr. Iusi, we strategized how to gain support, which led us to reframe FIS as Family Responsibility Statement (FRS). By emphasizing the defendant’s parenting responsibilities, rather than the impact on their children, we garnered buy-in from those who expressed concern about eclipsing the victim impact statement or who were not overly-empathetic about potential impacts on children (e.g., “the parent should have thought of the children before committing the crime”). Furthermore, by simply changing the name to Family Responsibility Statement, people were less likely to conflate Victim Impact Statements and Family Impact Statements. We also emphasized how FRS would assist probation officers working with parents post-sentencing or post-release and help departments of correction identify programming needs, collect data on the number of incarcerated parents with minor children, consider assigning incarcerated parents to facilities closer to their children, and inform parole decisions.

We garnered COPA’s instrumental support by reframing the issue. As of 2014, FRS is highlighted as a best practice in OPCA’s Fundamentals of Probation Practice training that is provided to all new probation officers in New York. OPCA also developed a webinar about FRS to educate probation directors and staff development officers already working in the field. Judges will now have information about the defendant’s minor children and parenting responsibilities to make informed sentencing decisions that prioritize public safety while minimizing the collateral consequences of incarceration on children, families, and communities. While FRS is not mandatory, we believe that FRS will become prevalent over time as probation and corrections staff learn how FRS can support their work, and probation officers view FRS as routine best practice. This incremental and important win will make a difference in the lives of children, families, and communities. The next step is advocating for the creation and funding of more alternative to incarceration programs.

 

Please visit Osborneny.org to learn more about supporting children of incarcerated parents and family impact statements, or contact Allison Hollihan at ahollihan [at] osborneny [dot] org or 718-637-6560

Allison Hollihan, Program Manager, Osborne Association’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents

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