What Happens When We Support Parents Instead of Sending Them to Prison

Assistance builds better futures than harsh punishment.
Jacqueline Altamirano Marin Senior Program Associate // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
May 09, 2024
In lieu of incarceration, Jemi Brown was enrolled in supportive programming designed to help mothers stay with their families and communities. Today, she works as a drug court liaison and peer recovery support specialist with the court system in Oklahoma City.

In 2018, Jemi Brown was pregnant, enduring an abusive relationship, and experiencing addiction and homelessness. She had lost custody of her first child due to a substance use disorder that had developed in the aftermath of a high school injury. After six surgeries over eight years on a badly broken leg, she had been prescribed copious amounts of painkillers. “My body was telling me I needed this drug,” she said. “When the doctors stopped prescribing it, I went and found my fix elsewhere.”

At a low moment, Brown was arrested and faced felony drug charges that could have sent her to prison for years. She reasonably feared a long sentence and prolonged separation from her children in her home state, which at times has incarcerated women at a higher rate than any other place in the country. “It was Oklahoma, and no one likes women who are using,” she said. “They were going to throw the book at me.”

Harsh punishment was familiar to her. “I had already punished myself more than anyone ever could punish me,” she said. “I think that is why I stayed in my abusive relationship. I thought I deserved it. This was where my choices had led.”

But unlike so many others in her position, Brown was not actually sent to prison. Instead of more punishment at the hands of the criminal legal system, she received assistance. Her attorney asked the judge to mandate that Brown enroll in supportive programming provided by the nonprofit organization ReMerge Oklahoma. As an alternative to incarceration, the programming is designed to help mothers stay with their families and communities, rather than be separated from their children.

As a first step, Brown went to live at Jordan’s Crossing, a residential treatment facility for people experiencing addiction in Oklahoma City. Her stay gave her the space and time to finally heal and recover. When her time there was over, ReMerge helped Brown find housing and a job at Love’s Travel Stops, a community partner of the organization. ReMerge assigned her to a team that included a case manager, a therapist, a child reunification program manager, an education and employment coordinator, and a peer recovery support specialist. ReMerge also provided childcare while she took a 12-week coding class and, once completed, helped her get an internship with a technology company. Brown later returned to school and earned her associate’s degree.

“It wasn’t just all on me to figure it out,” she said. “ReMerge felt like a soft place to land.”

In United States prisons, more than half (58 percent) of all women are mothers. In jails, 80 percent of women are separated from children. These statistics underscore the significant impact of incarceration on families, with millions of children being separated from their parents through incarceration. Too often, the U.S. criminal legal system fails to recognize that many people who face criminal charges need assistance, not punishment. This is especially true for parents—because when a caregiver is incarcerated, there are significant impacts for their children. Having a parent in prison increases children’s likelihood of special education placement, being held back in school, or dropping out entirely. It also increases their likelihood of experiencing homelessness, developing substance use disorders, and becoming involved in the criminal legal system themselves.

“It’s not just about the women avoiding prison, it’s about the children that have avoided losing their parents,” said Brown. “My five-year-old wouldn’t feel safe and trusting of the world if I had been ripped from him . . . When I was sick, I was not a good mother. It’s better for children to have healthy mothers who can take care of them.”

The success of ReMerge Oklahoma is just one example of how communities can design interventions that help pregnant people and caregivers break cycles of trauma, poverty, addiction, and incarceration.

In recent years, lawmakers, advocates, researchers, and policy experts have collaborated to reduce women's incarceration by emphasizing the benefits of community-based sentences over jail and prison for pregnant people and caregivers of children. Colorado's HB23-1187 legislation from 2023 stands as a testament to this effort, prioritizing alternatives to incarceration for pregnant or postpartum people and mandating that courts must justify any decision for detention or incarceration. Minnesota's 2021 Healthy Start Act similarly allows for conditional release of pregnant or recently postpartum people to engage in education programs, vocational training, substance use or mental health treatment, or parenting classes. Washington and Oregon have longstanding diversion programs tailored to pregnant people and caregivers.

Today, Brown is healthy and working as a drug court liaison and peer recovery support specialist with the court system in Oklahoma City. In her position, she helps people experiencing the same challenges she did many years ago, providing them with support and assistance. Her clients include many mothers and fathers. “I can tell them, ‘I have been exactly where you are at.’ I remember sitting at the bottom of that mountain, saying, ‘How do I get to the other side?’” she said. “I am lightyears away from the person I was.”