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Jailed Fathers Must Be Allowed to Participate in Release Program

Incarceration is no good for families. For parents, one of the worst parts of a prison sentence is being separated from one's children. For kids, incarceration can lead to stress, developmental delays, and financial and emotional trauma. In such situations, incarceration can injure the families of offenders "as much as, and sometimes more than, offenders themselves," according to studies.

Recognizing the problems caused by incarcerating offenders with minor children, California created an Alternative Custody Program in 2010. California's ACP program allows participants to spend a portion of their sentence outside of prison, maintaining contact with their children. The program, previously limited to mothers, must now be made available to all eligible inmates, a federal court has ruled.

ACP For All Parents

California's Alternative Custody Program allows parents to participate in lieu of state prison time. Participants can then live in a residential home, drug treatment program or transitional facility for up to the last two years of their sentence, keeping them close to their families. Of course, the program is not open to everyone. Violent offenders could not participate, nor could prior escapees or sex offenders.

Until the court's ruling on Wednesday, no fathers could not take part either. While ACP was available to all women, all fathers were explicitly excluded under a 2012 amendment to the program and none were allowed in during the two years prior. This was despite legislative findings that family reunification and the involvement of fathers in child rearing helps improve children's outcomes and contributes to reduced recidivism.

A Discriminatory Division

William Sassman, an inmate from Sacramento with two minor children, sued, arguing that the exclusion of all male prisoners was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Judge Morrison England of the Eastern District of California agreed. The state had characterized the ADP as a simple response to the under-served needs of women in prison, but the court found that "this case is not about programming. It is about freedom from incarceration."

The state, by excluding fathers from the ADP, condemns them to two more years in prison than their female counterparts. It "separates male offenders, who must remain inside of prison walls, from female offenders," who may be reunited with their families.

California has no sufficient reason for that separation, England found. Given that ACP is a highly individualized process, categorical bars based on gender are of little use. Further, the state's attempts to differentiate between fathers and mothers were based on "overly-broad generalizations" which attempted to establish a bright line exclusion grounded on the fuzziest of logic.

Having found the exclusion of men unconstitutional, the court ordered the California Department of Corrections to begin accepting applicants from all eligible inmates regardless of gender. That means incarcerated fathers can begin applying to participate in ACP immediately.

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