What Ava’s Law Would Mean for Incarcerated Pregnant Women in Florida

March 2, 2022 Criminal Defense

In October 2021, HB 363, sponsored by Representative Dianne Hart of Tampa, and SB 630, sponsored by Senator Shevrin Jones of Miami Gardens, were filed and referred to their respective subcommittees to be heard.  These companion bills are both titled “Pregnant Women in Custody” and center around creating procedures and processes to provide adequate care for pregnant women who are incarcerated. These bills are cited as “Ava’s Law” in memory of Ava Thompson.

The Backstory

Ava Thompson tragically passed away after her mother, Erica Thompson, was denied the necessary care while in custody at the Alachua County Jail and was forced to give birth in her cell. On August 9th, 2021, Erica, who was six months pregnant at the time, was arrested for two active warrant charges of felony violation of probation and failure to appear on a traffic charge and placed in Alachua County Jail. Despite alerting a nurse she was having contractions; Erica received no medical help and gave birth that evening alone in her cell. Her daughter, Ava, was then transported to the hospital where doctors said they did not believe they could save her due to her small size. Ava survived for a few hours before passing away, an outcome that Thompson believes could have been avoided had the medical staff done more. Erica stated, “I basically held my baby all night, until she died, until she turned blue,” and recounted the harrowing day as one she will never forget. This heartbreaking event led to protests outside of the Alachua County Jail where people made their support for Thompson known and questioned why and how she was put in such a position to give birth in her cell.

What Do the Bills Say?

The act would create Section 907.033 of the Florida Statutes and would include the following provisions:

  • Every female arrested and not released on bond within 72 hours after arrest must, upon her request, be administered a pregnancy test by the municipal or county detention facility where she is being held within 24 hours after the request.
  • Every municipal or county detention facility would be required to notify each arrested female upon booking at the facility of her right to request a pregnancy test 72 hours after arrest if she is still in custody.
  • The term “female” is defined as a juvenile or adult woman.

The act would also create Section 932.13 of the Florida Statutes and would include the following provisions:

  • The term “pregnant woman” is defined as a juvenile or adult woman whose pregnancy has been verified through a pregnancy test or through a medical examination conducted by a health care practitioner.
  • If a pregnant woman is convicted of a crime and sentenced to incarceration of any length, the sentencing judge would be required to provide the pregnant woman the opportunity to defer the imposed sentence until 12 weeks after delivery of the baby so that during the deferral period the mother may receive the necessary health care for herself and her unborn child.
  • Authorizing a sentencing judge to order a pregnant woman to comply with certain terms and conditions during the deferral
  • Requiring that within 10 days after the deferral period ends and the woman is incarcerated, she be offered and receive, upon her request, specified services including an appropriate assessment by a licensed health care practitioner, a postpartum assessment and necessary medical tests, procedures, lactation support, mental health support, or treatments associated with her postpartum condition.
  • If the woman is convicted of a new crime during the deferral period or violates any of the conditions imposed by the sentencing judge, the judge may impose any sanction under 948.06, including an order requiring the incarceration of the woman.
  • The Department of Corrections will be required to collect from its own institutions and each municipal and county detention facility information including:
    • The number of pregnant women who receive a sentence deferral
    • The number of women who receive or decline an assessment
    • The number of births, including stillbirths, to women whose sentences are deferred and the age and birth weight of each infant at time of birth or stillbirth
    • The number of women who experience complications during pregnancy and the type of complications experienced
    • The number of women who experience miscarriages
    • The number of women who refuse to provide information regarding the outcome of their pregnancies

The Importance

The Dignity Power Coalition, a coalition working to ensure the dignity for incarcerated girls and women with the ultimate goal of ending incarceration, are the champions behind the legislation. At a press conference, the Coalition deemed Ava’s Law as an imperative piece of legislation that ensures pregnant women who are convicted of a crime can give birth with dignity and are treated with respect and humanity. Senator Jones echoed this sentiment, stating:

Let this sink in: A pregnant woman was left alone in her cell while she was clearly in distress and screaming in pain. Rather than make the appropriate health-related decisions to medically treat a patient in crisis, jail officials stood idly by and offered no medical assistance. I am proud to partner with Representative Dianne Hart to re-file the ‘Protecting the Dignity of Women and Infants Act’ and rename it ‘Ava’s Law’ in the lost child’s memory. Women are the fastest growing prison population in this country, and yet, they are treated shamefully. Accessible care ought to be a human right because all people, regardless of societal or economic status, deserve safe, healthy environments, access to basic necessities, and above all, dignity.

The Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates are also in support of Ava’s Law.

Previous Dignity for Incarcerated Women Bills

The first Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill, HB 49, passed in 2019 with unanimous bipartisan support from the Florida Legislature. The bill was eventually signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis and ensured that women receive free healthcare and menstrual products while incarcerated. HB 1259, also known as the Tammy Jackson Act, is Florida’s second Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill and was signed into law in 2020. The legislation makes sure that pregnant women who go into labor while incarcerated get “transported to an appropriate medical facility without delay, given proper medical care, and not placed in restrictive housing involuntarily.” The act also requires detention facilities to adopt written policies about using restraints and body cavity searches on pregnant prisoners. Although both acts were essential in providing life-saving healthcare to incarcerated women, more protections must be employed through Ava’s Law. Representative Hart acknowledged the lapses in the current Dignity for Incarcerated Women Bills, stating,

I thought this issue was handled with the passage of the Tammy Jackson Act, however, we find ourselves in a similar situation once again. My heart bleeds for Erica Thompson on the passing of her child and while this legislation will not bring Ava back, it will ensure that no other mother or child will have to experience what Erica and Ava did in that county jail.

Hopefully, both HB 363 and SB 630 will garnish the same unanimous support that will result in Ava’s Law being Florida’s third Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill to become law. If passed, both will go into effect July 1, 2022.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

Incarceration is a severe sentence for anyone. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime and is pregnant, ensure you fight for your freedom by hiring a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience defending Floridians against all kinds of charges. Give us a call at (850) 681 – 7777 or send an online message to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Sarah Kamide

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