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Tampa lawmaker’s bill to defer prison time for pregnant women advances

Bill sponsor Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said she drafted “Ava’s Law” in response to the death of a baby born in the Alachua County Jail in 2021.
 
A bill drafted by Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, after the death of a baby born in the Alachua County Jail in 2021 would allow pregnant women convicted of felonies to seek to delay going to prison for up to three months after giving birth. The measure, dubbed "Ava's Law," moved forward in the House on Tuesday.
A bill drafted by Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, after the death of a baby born in the Alachua County Jail in 2021 would allow pregnant women convicted of felonies to seek to delay going to prison for up to three months after giving birth. The measure, dubbed "Ava's Law," moved forward in the House on Tuesday. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published April 11, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A measure that moved forward Tuesday in the House would allow pregnant women convicted of felonies to seek to delay going to prison for up to three months after giving birth — a move that one  supporter said will “save babies.”

The House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee voted 14-1 to approve the bill (HB 779), with Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, casting the lone dissenting vote. The proposal needs approval from the Judiciary Committee before it could be considered by the full House.

Bill sponsor Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said she drafted the bill, dubbed “Ava’s Law,” in response to the death of a baby born to a woman in the Alachua County Jail in 2021.

Erica Thompson was booked into the jail after being arrested for a violation of probation. Thompson informed officers she was pregnant and having contractions, a House staff analysis of the bill said.

Thompson gave birth after she was processed into the facility. The baby, Ava, was born three months premature and died hours after being transported to a hospital.

“Thompson gave birth alone in her cell,” Hart told the House panel. “The child, Ava, was then transferred to the hospital, but later died. We must think about all the other incarcerated mothers who have faced situations like this one, and we cannot continue to fail them.”

Hart said the bill would give judges discretion in such situations.

“Remember, only the judge has that discretion, based on certain charges, so it’s strictly up to (the judge) whether or not he will allow a woman to remain out while she gives birth to her baby,” Hart said.

Under the measure, the judge would be required to consider the severity of the offense, the defendant’s prior criminal history and “whether deferring the incarcerative portion of the pregnant woman’s sentence poses a danger” to the community.

Pregnant women who receive deferrals would be placed on probation until they are incarcerated.

Hart said a deferral of up to 12 weeks would allow a mother to “make safe and adequate arrangements for caring for her child” after birth.

Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, said the measure could have life-saving impacts.

“This particular bill will save babies,” Valdes said.

Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, D-Ocoee, called the measure “thoughtful, caring and considerate.”

“We understand that children are innocent. I am a former Department of Children and Families attorney, and our standard was always, what is in the best interest of the child? And I think this bill very closely aligns with what is in the best interest of the child,” Bracy Davis said.

The measure also would lead to women being informed of a right to pregnancy tests as they are booked into detention facilities.

Hart pointed to what she characterized as a deficiency in current law when it comes to sentencing pregnant women.

“This legislation will aid mothers in developing special bonds with their children, which they’re not receiving under current law,” Hart said.

A similar Senate bill (SB 730) has not received a committee hearing.