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Women In Prison

Psalm 82: 3 Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needed.

I have a question! At what point do we the "church" take a more proactive role in pursuing policies and statutes that are a direct attack against the poor and fatherless? Why do continue to sit silent as our judicial systems penalize the poor? Maybe many of you are like me. I do not know where to start. However, we can educate ourselves and research and find answers if we care enough to solve problems in our country. It does not require a praise and worship team, it does not include a sermon on the mount or a bible study, it just requires the will to do something and become active. I am so excited to see more and more churches get involved in efforts to make a positive difference in our communities that solve problems. Below are a few articles I have found that describe the problems we are having in our country around issues of the incarceration of women. Let's think of ways we can do something together in our communities to solve these issues.

According to the "Sentences Project", over the past quarter-century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female incarcerated population stands over seven times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019.

Race and Ethnicity in Prisons

In 2019, the imprisonment rate for African American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000).

  • Latinx women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (63 vs. 48 per 100,000).

  • The rate of imprisonment for African American women has been declining since 2000, while the rate of imprisonment for white and Latinx women has increased.

  • Between 2000 and 2019, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons declined by 60% for black women, while the rate of imprisonment for white women rose by 41%.

Incarcerated Girls

  • Of the 43,580 youth in residential placement, 15% (6,598) are girls.

  • As with boys, girls are confined considerably less frequently than at the start of the century. In 2001, 15,104 girls were confined in residential placement settings. By 2017, this figure had been cut by more than half.

  • African American and Native girls are much more likely to be incarcerated than Asian, white, and Hispanic girls. The placement rate for all girls is 43 per 100,000 girls (those between ages 10 and 17), but the placement rate for Asian girls is 3 per 100,000; for white girls is 29 per 100,000, and for Hispanic girls is 31 per 100,000. African American girls are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated (94 per 100,000), and Native girls are more than four times as likely (123 per 100,000).6)

  • Though just 15% of incarcerated youth are girls, they make up a much higher proportion of those incarcerated for the lowest level offenses. Thirty-six percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls. More than half of the youth incarcerated for running away are girls. Overall, one-third of incarcerated girls are held for status offenses or for violating the terms of their probation.

Offense Types for Men and Women in State Prisons

  • Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-six percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 13% of men in prison; 24% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 16% among incarcerated men.

  • The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 26% in 2018.

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020

This report offers some much-needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. The image below provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S. and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration, including exceedingly punitive responses to even the most minor offenses.


March 30, 2018

A 2015 study from the University of Michigan Law School found that when such decisions are taken into account, sentences for men are on average 63 percent longer than sentences for women.

But women’s criminal involvement often looks different than men’s: They may be minor players in drug rings, are sometimes pushed into crime by a violent partner, and often carry trauma from physical and sexual abuse.

“For the majority of women that land on a prison bunk, there’s a common thread to what makes that happen,” said James, now the executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

More than 56 percent of the women in federal prison are there for drug offenses, compared with about 47 percent of men. In drug cases involving multiple people, each defendant can be held responsible for the full weight of the drugs involved, even if he or she were far down on the organizational chart. That approach is hard on women, who are often low-level players in such operations, experts said.

The guidelines do compensate by offering “role adjustments” for people who were merely drug mules, for example. But for many women, Gertner said, “those adjustments don’t begin to capture their insubstantial role.” So judges, who must consider the guidelines but since 2005 have not been compelled to follow them, maybe respond with lower-than-recommended sentences.

Also largely excluded from the guidelines is any consideration of how a defendant got into crime in the first place. Yet research on incarcerated women shows that abusive relationships can put them on the wrong side of the law. Most women who assault their intimate partners have also been victimized by those partners, and they often cite self-defense as a motive. Researchers have also turned up many cases of incarcerated women who reported being forced into committing a crime by threats of violence.

A broader history of victimization is also common among female offenders. When researchers interviewed 125 women awaiting release from North Carolina prisons, they found that almost two-thirds had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse, and more than a quarter had been sexually victimized in the year before they went to prison. (Most studies do not draw explicit comparisons with men, but a survey of about 7,500 state prisoners conducted in 2005 found that while men and women had similar rates of childhood physical abuse, women had far higher rates of childhood sexual abuse.)

The sentencing guidelines set a high bar for considering such life experiences, and then only in cases involving nonviolent crimes.1 Judges are also discouraged from factoring in the role of drug addiction except in extraordinary circumstances.

The upshot is that the guidelines “disproportionately disadvantage anyone who has a significant trauma,” said Christine Freeman, who runs an Alabama organization that provides lawyers to poor clients charged with federal crimes. The exclusion of life experience may have been motivated by an effort to ensure that people of higher socioeconomic status could not work the system to their advantage, Freeman said. “But what it did was tell the courts that it was OK to ignore all these factors that have motivated this situation and led a person to this point.”

Another wrinkle in the sentencing guidelines is that they do not distinguish between people who have committed only minor offenses and people who have never even had a brush with the law. Yet, according to Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman, who runs the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, “Those who have never gotten their nose dirty in the criminal justice system at all have a much lower recidivism rate.” A study of federal inmates who left prison in 2005 found that a quarter of those with no prior criminal justice contact reoffended, compared with more than a third of those who had some prior contact with the system. That’s a distinction judges might care about. Or they might be attentive to data indicating that among federal inmates, women overall have lower recidivism rates than men.

And the federal guidelines specifically discourage taking family considerations into account, declaring them “not ordinarily relevant” to sentencing. But they are certainly relevant to defendants like James who face separation from their children — and women appear to be particularly affected. Among federal prisoners in 2004, a higher share of men than women reported being the parents of minor children, but almost 80 percent of the mothers reported that they lived with their children just before incarceration, compared with half of the fathers.

Gertner said that judges might be particularly sensitive to the consideration that sending parents away is bad for public safety: “We know as a public-safety measure that (in) families that have been fractured by imprisonment, there’s a risk to the next generation.” Gertner and Berman said they believe judges are taking into account women’s family obligations despite the guidelines’ opposition to doing so — and that helps explain women’s shorter sentences.

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