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Why We Need to Pay Attention to Women's Incarceration

For the past 25 years, the rate of women’s incarceration in the U.S. has reached it’s peak. Today, females are jailed at a rate of nearly 150 percent when compared to their male counterparts. According to the ACLU, there are more than 200,000 women behind bars and over one million on probation and parole.

A major cause of the drastic upturn? Harsh punishments for nonviolent offenses, Clinton-era three strikes policies, and mandatory minimum sentencing.

Yet, while women are being incarcerated at higher rates, they still make up a mere fraction of the overall number of people imprisoned within the U.S. criminal justice system--a mere seven percent. As a result, women receive little attention when talks of criminal justice reform arise.

That women make up only seven percent of the total prison population is one reason they should be paid attention to specifically, argues Emily Salisbury, a Criminal Justice Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Salisbury, who made her case at a TedX event, argues that the crimes that women are charged with are, generally speaking, related to poverty, addiction, and lack of resources, rather than violence.

By focusing on their gender-specific needs, rehabilitation, and by focusing on cultivating life skills, the issue of rampant prison overcrowding could be significantly curbed.

Her research is reiterated by findings from The Sentencing Project, showing that in comparison to men, women are more frequently incarcerated for nonviolent drug or property offenses than they are for violent crimes.

Many involved in criminal justice reform are hoping that more attention is paid to women in the U.S. criminal justice system.

"Women are often overlooked because on the surface, they make up a small part of the criminal justice puzzle," writes Boston University criminal justice professor Dr. Daniel Rousseau. "In reality, though, women's experience in the criminal justice system has an immense effect on future generations of our society. The incarceration of women has an immediate and systemic involvement from one generation to the next. We need alternative pathways and examples. We need trauma-informed approaches that are intergenerational."

What remains to be seen is how women ought be prioritized in the criminal justice system, as they make up such a small number of the overall picture. How can the system provide appropriate support networks that keep women from recidivism? How can they receive treatment from alcoholism and drug use to prevent further abuse or DUIs? Find treatment for PTSD and trauma? Receive support for other gender-specific concerns which place them behind bars in the first place?

Many experts are considering solutions that keep non-violent offenders close to their families and provide opportunities for education and employment in crime-ridden areas. Many programs that have taken initiative have already seen enormous amounts of success.

One example lies in Cincinnati, where seven years ago, police partnered with academics in order to cease crime and recidivism in an area where poor people of color are disproportionately targeted by police. Police and academics made significant progress by simply offering known offenders access to education.

Other initiatives allow women to remain in their homes with their children after being charged with nonviolent offenses. As an example, Justice Home New York offers women offenders access to case managers who help them with educational advancement, job training and supervision, and treatment for other mental health and substance abuse disorders.

These programs not only have kept women out of the system, but have also prevented cyclical poverty and further incarceration for their families, all the while saving taxpayer dollars.

Women face unique challenges in society that have the potential to lead to incarceration, even if their crimes are nonviolent in nature. By helping these women avoid jail time, and helping them cope with life's challenges, communities and families benefit.

Posted by DanikaK at March 8, 2017 9:39 PM
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