Mass Incarceration's Toll on Women

Mass Incarceration's Toll on Women
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On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, a congressional briefing will be held on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration. It's about time. Sadly, to many politicians, mass incarceration is something that impacts primarily the lives of men and boys. Their speeches reflect this concern. Rightfully, they are alarmed by the United States incarcerating more people than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, we all share this concern. Globally, nearly 25% of the world's incarcerated population is locked behind bars in our state and federal prisons. The U.S. incarcerates over 700 people per 100,000. Compare that to: England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).

Yet, families throughout the U.S. know that the burdens, pain, and trauma of mass incarceration extend to women and girls in uniquely terrifying ways. The U.S. incarcerates more women than any other nation in the world: more than China, Russia, India, Mexico, and Thailand combined. Like men, they experience rape behind bars, sodomy, solitary confinement, too frequently the denial of adequate medical care, and disparate sentences related to drug offenses. Disproportionately, females behind bars in the U.S. are women and girls of color.

The Institute on Women and Criminal Justice (IWCJ), one of the leading national policy center quantitatively and qualitatively researching women in prison. Reports that the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007--nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. This staggering increase now results in more than one million women incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a "Special Report" that "[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%," while "[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%."

Women are the invisible casualties caught not only in our warehousing of people, but our failed Drug War. Our nation's war on drugs has resulted in tens of thousands of children displaced into foster care and later-homelessness. It resulted in draconian policies that created a 100-1 disparate sentencing framework between crack and cocaine. That is, a person with 5 grams of crack would be subjected to the same mandatory sentence of someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. Many recognized such policies as racialized and unjustified. Five years ago, President Obama signed legislation that reduces the disparity to 18-1. It was a good bi-partisan first step, but it too maintained disparities that have enormous racial and socio-economic impacts. Nor did the law address female incarceration.

In fact, as Professor Phyllis Goldfarb explained in a very important law review article: Counting the Drug War's Female Casualties, "a major way that women have been caught in the crossfire of the drug war has been through heterosexual relationships with men engaged in drug activity. Such relationships put women at considerable risk of severe penalties, including conviction of a drug offense, often as a constructive possessor, an aider and abettor, or a co-conspirator, typically with stiff, mandatory penalties." For these women, sometimes their sentences are longer and more severe than that of their boyfriends and husbands because they are ill-equipped to plea bargain. That is, they have no one to turn in and will not benefit law enforcement in a bigger sting. Indeed, women have served lengthy jail sentences while their known-drug trafficking boyfriends have been granted probation in clever plea deals.

But that's not all. Women experience the government's punishment in multifold ways--even if they were not the offenders: losing homes, forfeiting jointly held property, evictions from government subsidized housing, and more. These displacements impact not only women, but also their children. For women who are caught with drugs (as nearly 2/3ds of those locked away are), they no longer qualify for federal financial aid and they are permanently banned from receiving welfare benefits.

Recently, in a bold step forward, President Obama turned his attention to women behind bars. In July, 2015, I published an article commending the President on his speech to the NAACP regarding the grave need for criminal justice reform. My comments came with a pointed critique too--what about women? Why had girls been left out of his moving remarks--while very explicit references to African American boys peppered his speech? It was a lost opportunity, but a common oversight. However, the President made sure that at his final State of the Union Address to have Sue Ellen Allen, the Executive Director of Gina's Team in the audience--seated in the galley with Mrs. Obama. Sue Ellen served seven years in prison, experiencing the horrors of breast cancer behind bars and the death of her 25 year old cellmate, Gina, due to medical neglect. Gina had suffered such glaring neglect that she lapsed into a coma when she finally was granted medical care. She died three days later.

Some people find it hard to feel any sympathy toward the plight of women behind bars, even those like Gina who die so young. However, that is a very slim portion of the U.S. population. A recent poll shows that nearly 80% of the public, including over 70% of Republicans, "support repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders." Americans are coming to understand and feel the real sting of families and communities ripped apart because of drug war and sentencing policies.

In reality, mass incarceration costs all Americans. In 2010, taxpayers spent $30,000 per minute and $1,800,000 per hour to fight our war on drugs, when prison was never an intelligent solution to the disease of drug addiction. We pay even more now.

What can members of Congress do? As a first step, institute sentencing reforms. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of legislators, including Senators Grassley (R-IA), Durbin (D-IL), Cornyn (R-TX), Booker (D-NJ), Franken, (D-MN), and Feinstein (D-CA), is committed to doing just that with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. This law holds some promise because many of its provisions apply retroactively--and these reforms will help the tens of thousands of incarcerated women. But lawmakers must do more.

Prisons and jails are not the solutions for our nation's social problems. In fact, they are a poor investment in our nation's future. Sound evidence bears that out. My hope is that lawmakers come to understand the grave toll and impact mass incarceration exacts on women and their children and begin doing something about it.

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