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My name is Ashleigh Carter. I go by many titles and wear many hats, but none are quite as important to me as ‘Mother’. And it is for this very reason that I am fighting to keep families together in California, because I know first hand what it’s like to have my family torn apart by incarceration.

Every day, I think deeply about all the parents who are locked away behind bars in California and around the country not knowing when they will get a chance to hold or see their child again. I know that so many women and families are unnecessarily harmed by our current criminal justice system — and I’m committed to changing that.

That’s one reason I’ve been fighting so hard for SB394, new legislation that would help keep families together by ensuring that parents and primary caregivers have an opportunity to seek alternatives to incarceration like programming and treatment, rather than incarceration and separation being the first resort.

10 years ago, I was sentenced to three years in prison for a first time, nonviolent drug offense. The hardest part of my incarceration was the time spent away from my daughter, Asia. I missed out on everything in her life. From important milestones like her first day of school and teaching her how to tie her own shoes, to everyday things like making her a sandwich the way she likes it and tucking her into bed.

The thought of my daughter growing up without me was terrifying. The reality of the damage that my incarceration had caused was even more painful than I ever could have imagined. Over the course of those three years, my relationship with my daughter became more and more detached. Although we had some contact through letters that I would write and the occasional phone call, by the time I came home, I no longer knew my baby.

The truth is, I wasn’t the only person that paid for my mistakes with that sentence. The time that I spent away has had a lasting impact on my family, my community, and my loved ones. Although my mother stepped in to raise my daughter while I was away, nothing compares to a mother’s love. Six years later we are all still healing from the time that we spent apart, still learning about each other, still trying to repair the damage that was done, and every day we spend together is another step in that healing process.

I’m honored to be able to share my story as part of a solution that will help make things better for families across California. SB 394, the Primary Caregiver Pretrial Diversion Act, can change the lives of families like mine and help keep kids and their parents or caregivers together. This new legislation would set up a diversion court that would give parents the ability to remain involved in their children’s lives while holding them accountable for their actions through rehabilitative programming.

In an effort to change the hearts and minds of lawmakers in California, Asia and I traveled to Sacramento to share our stories and reflect back on how our experience could have been different if this bill had been in place when I was initially sentenced.

I don’t think I have ever been more proud of Asia than when I watched her sit in front of the Judiciary committee and talk about her very raw, personal experience.

Ashleigh Carter and her daughter Asia testifying before the California Senate Committee for Public Safety.

Asia was bullied and teased throughout school because of the choices I made. As a parent, I never would’ve thought that I would not be there to counsel and advise her in navigating new chapters of her life. Not only did I miss out on being there for her in moments when she needed me most, but my poor choices also made it that much harder for her.

No parent should be forced to miss out on experiences when their child needs them the most. No child should be forced to suffer because of their parents mistakes. My daughter became the victim of my consequences.

As a mother, it pains me to know how I’ve hurt my daughter and missed out on opportunities in her life. When Asia needed something as simple as a hug, I couldn’t give it to her. We were completely disconnected from each other: physically, mentally, and eventually emotionally. While I was incarcerated, I forced myself to become detached from Asia because I couldn’t face the torture of missing her every day or the painful curiosity of what her life was like without me in it.

Luckily, Asia had her grandmother (my mother) to step in and raise her while I was gone — but that still didn’t change what she lost out on while I was incarcerated; yet we know that we are one of the lucky families. In too many cases, when a parent is sent to prison their child is at great risk of entering the foster care system.

Ashleigh Carter with her daughters and mother during the Los Angeles Day of Empathy.

Sb 394 can prevent families from experiencing the same heartache that I faced, while also giving parents the tools and support to rebuild their lives. Being torn apart from my daughter not only changed my life, but it also changed hers. Every day together is a reminder of the special bond that we have and are working to strengthen.

The pain I felt in my heart while I was away cannot be described, yet mothers throughout California are no stranger to it. There is irreparable damage done to families when a loved one is incarcerated. When I was released, we had no idea that the hardest part of our separation would lie before us. Asia and I were total strangers. We had only known each other through pictures and phone calls. Now here we were staring at each other, searching for familiarity in each other’s face. She was no longer the little baby I had left behind. I came home to a young girl and had to learn who she had become. Six years later, we are still learning, still growing, still feeling the ripples of that reunification.

A bill like SB 394 would have allowed me to prove to the courts that I knew I had made a mistake and was willing to make changes in my life while staying connected to my daughter. I wasn’t asking to get off without consequence, I was looking for an opportunity to prove that I was capable of more and that my daughter deserved to have her mother and a little less trauma in her life.

Invest in parents, not prisons by joining me in fighting for opportunity, accountability, second chances, and rehabilitative programming to keep California families together.