Legislation that would guarantee some rights to pregnant prisoners won near-unanimous House approval, but time is running out for it to become law this year.
The House voted 112-2 approving the legislation (HB 779) from Democratic Reps. Dianne Hart and Angie Nixon. It’s called “Ava’s Law,” in honor of a newborn who didn’t get the benefits that the law would provide, Hart explained. The bill creates an awareness of pregnancy and gives judges the discretion to defer sentences so that new mothers get to spend up to 12 weeks with their newborn.
Erica Thompson gave birth alone in her Alachua County Jail cell and her child, Ava, was then transferred to the hospital and later died a few hours later, Hart said.
“Our babies can’t choose where they’re born, how they’re born, who they are born to,” Nixon said, recalling that she first proposed the law the year before Ava died and could have potentially saved her. “It’s really important that we look out for children, all children.”
If passed, the law would allow mothers to better care for their newborns, supporters said.
“It’s particularly personal to me because I had a loved one who was incarcerated and delivered her baby and (she) was not allowed to hold her baby before they took her back to jail,” said Democratic Rep. Ashley Gantt. “This allows people in Florida who make mistakes to still have dignity and that baby to still form a bond with their mother.”
In addition to the possibility of deferred sentences, the bill also requires detention facilities to provide pregnancy tests upon request for arrestees detained longer than 72 hours.
In case of a miscarriage, those convicted would also get 12 weeks to recover after the pregnancy ends.
If a pregnant woman violates the terms of release or commits another crime, the leeway granted in this bill could be rescinded, and the judge could compel her to begin serving her sentence immediately.
The bill also stipulates that once incarcerated, the woman would be offered a postpartum assessment by a licensed health care provider, with telehealth being an option for that screening. This would include “the need for any necessary medical tests, procedures, lactation support, mental health support, or treatments associated with the mother’s postpartum condition.”
The bill also includes a data collection aspect, charging the Department of Corrections with aggregating data from county and local lockups. The facilities would track how many women receive the deferral, how many decline the medical assessment, how many babies are born, how many miscarriages are suffered and how many refuse to disclose information. This data would be provided anonymously.
Time may be running out for the bill becoming law this year, though. The legislation (SB 730) that Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones did not get a single committee hearing, signaling the Senate is reticent to approve the measure.