Georgia’s Women’s CARE Act (HB 377) is a bipartisan effort to restore the safety and dignity of expecting mothers and unborn babies who have been swept up in the criminal legal system.
Georgia’s criminal legal system is infamous. From inadequate conditions to harsh treatment, Georgia’s incarcerated population face a variety of challenges while serving their time. And these injustices cannot be overlooked or dismissed—Georgia boasts the most correctional controlled population in the world, as found by Prison Policy Initiative.
Pregnant women in particular are subjected to unacceptable dangers. Rates of detention for women in America have spiked 750 percent in the past 40 years—a staggering rate for which no one was prepared. These unprecedented times during the COVID pandemic have increased the urgency for the safety of prison birth.
It was only two years ago that shackling pregnant women, a physical threat to the woman and her baby, was unanimously prohibited in Georgia’s HB 345. Georgia was one of six states last in line to stop shackling pregnant women while they were in labor and immediately after they had given birth. A baby’s first few hours with their mother should not be infringed upon by the cold, harsh metal of chains, nor should a pregnant woman receive inadequate or no perinatal care including the delivery of her baby in a cell alone.
While this is an excellent step toward justice, we still have a ways to go. The recently introduced Women’s CARE Act (HB 377) provides a path forward towards more equitable treatment.
The CARE Act, which stands for “Childcare Alternatives, Resources and Education,” would accomplish three main goals:
- Administer pregnancy tests to arrested women after 72 hours to confirm their pregnancies and allow them to be released on bond.
- Defer serving prison time until 12 weeks postpartum.
- Collect thorough and accurate data on pregnant women behind bars to better serve them in the future.
Hosted by Chairwoman Sharon Cooper (R-43) and Kim Schofield (D-60), HB 377 is a bipartisan effort to restore the safety and dignity of expecting mothers and unborn babies who have been swept up in the criminal legal system.
On Tuesday, the legislation passed the Health and Human Services Committee unanimously and now moves to the House Rules Committee.
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If Passed, What Will Georgia’s Women’s CARE Act Accomplish?
The biggest achievement of HB 377 is the sentence deferment until twelve weeks postpartum. There have been countless studies done stipulating the importance of a child’s first few months; they must be held, nursed, and loved. Current correctional practices remove a baby from their mother after a period as short as two hours.
One study conducted by the government found that separation from a mother in the first three years of a child’s life paves the way for aggressive tendencies and a myriad of other behavioral problems. While these children have done nothing wrong, their first years are being met with unjust punishment containing repercussions that will follow them for a lifetime. These three months have the potential to change the landscape of our children’s lives.
Another important part of HB 377 is the collection of data on women who are pregnant and incarcerated. Right now the bulk of existing data consists of estimates, and these guesses misinform our ability to properly care for pregnant women. HB 377 aims to understand three metrics:
- The total number of women incarcerated.
- The total number of pregnant women incarcerated.
- The total number of women who were declined deferred sentencing.
Lastly, women will be administered pregnancy tests after 72 hours of detention. This will improve the care given to women in the earliest stages of their pregnancy.
Using Lived Experience to Inform Policy
The lived experience and mastermind behind the bill is Pamela Winn, founder of RestoreHER US.America—a policy advocacy nonprofit organization with the mission of education, advocacy and “leadHERship” for system-impacted women.
Winn’s passion for the reproductive justice of system-impacted women stems from her experience as an expecting mother while incarcerated. The officers shackled Winn whenever she was transported, causing her to trip and fall, unable to catch herself. As a result, she miscarried. Pamela’s trials inspired her fight for the safety of unborn babies and the dignity of incarcerated mothers across the country.
Learning From Other States
In the past two decades, a dozen states have signed bills into laws that prohibit the demeaning and dangerous practice of shackling pregnant women. South Carolina followed Georgia’s lead and now joins the ranks of dozens of other states with the passing of similar legislation.
Women’s CARE Act is also being introduced in Florida and Tennessee, and Alabama is joining the movement as well. Minnesota just passed a version of the Women’s CARE Act that is supported by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
There is also a continuing fight for federal policies addressing incarcerated pregnant people. Pamela served on the “roundtable” for the initial federal legislation introduced by Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Kamala Harris (then a California senator), the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Winn also consulted on the federal Pregnant Women In Custody Act introduced by Karen Bass and Mia Love.
Winn’s work, and that of other activists across the country, has increased awareness of an issue within the criminal legal system that has too often been ignored. We need to continue to fight for policies that take maternal and child well-being into account, protect incarcerated women and reform our criminal justice system.
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