As we celebrate International Women’s Day and pay tribute to the amazing feats that women have accomplished globally, we should also take note of the work that remains to be done in making sure that women do not suffer disproportionately due to their gender.
For instance, women are now incarcerated at nearly double the rate of men in this country, yet they receive little attention in criminal justice reform measures. This population has gender-specific needs that differ from men in prison, primarily owing to the fact that they are often the primary caregivers of their children before incarceration and are disproportionately victimized by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in their past. Instead of investing in counseling treatment for such traumatic pasts and rehabilitative treatment for substance addiction, the criminal justice system continues to detain women at extraordinary rates for primarily nonviolent drug-related offenses.
Below we outline the top five facts about women in our country’s criminal justice system.
1. The number of women incarcerated has grown by more than 800 percent over the last three decades and women of color are locked up far more often.
There are now more than 200,000 women behind bars and more than 1 million on probation. Two-thirds are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, many of these drug-related crimes. Women of color are disproportionately affected: African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
2. Many women enter the criminal justice system with a disturbing history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
A reported 85 to 90 percent of women who are either currently incarcerated or under the control of the justice system in the United States have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse, mental illness, and spousal abuse. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effective to treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.
3. Many girls also enter the juvenile justice system with a disturbing history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
Girls are disproportionately arrested for running away, accounting for 59 percent of runaways, though they are often fleeing violent home situations. Instead of receiving counseling and mental health services, however, they are subject to humiliation and dehumanizing treatment in prisons. Girls are also more likely than boys to be sexually victimized while serving time in a facility.
4. Pregnant prisoners are often shackled during labor and delivery, risking the health of the mother and child.
While court cases have ruled that shackling women prisoners to their beds during labor and delivery is inhumane and unconstitutional, the practice continues in many state facilities. Women in prison are also routinely denied basic reproductive health services, such as pregnancy testing, prenatal care, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and access to abortion services.
5. Women face further discrimination after release from prison.
After being released from prison, many women face barriers in effectively re-entering society and providing for themselves and their children. Women of color, who are disproportionately poor, find themselves restricted from governmental assistance programs, such as housing, employment, education, and subsistence benefits. Many states even impose statutory bans on people with certain convictions working in certain industries such as nursing, child care, and home health care—three fields in which many poor women and women of color happen to be disproportionately concentrated.
Despite the fact that crime has continued to decline in this country, our incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenses have spiraled out of control, and nowhere is this clearer than in the population of women—women of color in particular. The treatment of women in our criminal justice system, and the large-scale abandonment of children that it generates, are serious issues for all of us to contend with as we think about the role of women in today’s society.
Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst with the Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress.
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