Why Policy Reform Proposals Must Be Rewritten to Do More for Women Who Committed a Violent Crime
Date:  02-16-2016

Legislators are ignoring the thousands of women who are deserving of a second chance
Via Al Jazeera February 13, 2016

How criminal justice reform fails incarcerated women

By Victoria Law

For years, criminal justice reform was political suicide. Politicians, desperate to avoid being seen as “soft on crime,” advocated harsher and harsher punishments, such as mandatory prison sentences for drug convictions and multiple convictions through the 1990s. The result was that the prison population ballooned — and with it, the number of women behind bars. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of women sent to prison more than doubled, from 44,065 to nearly 100,000.

Much of this growth has been attributed to draconian drug laws and mandatory sentencing guidelines, but even in cases where mandatory minimum guidelines do not apply, prosecutors’ and judges’ eagerness to appear tough on crime has made them unwilling to consider factoring in mitigating circumstances when imposing sentences. For women who have used violence to defend themselves against domestic violence or sexual assault, this unwillingness can mean decades, if not a lifetime, in prison.

Faced with overcrowded prisons and their exorbitant expenses, many politicians have changed their tune. Calling the country’s criminal justice system “out of balance,” Hillary Clinton now advocates reducing (but not eliminating) mandatory sentences for federal drug offenses. Congress members such as Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner are backtracking on their previous “tough on crime” stances; In the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul teamed up with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to introduce a bill allowing federal judges to hand out sentences below the mandatory minimums. At the same time, the experiences of women in prison — and their involvement in the criminal justice system — has been attracting more attention in mainstream media and public policy discussions. The focus has been on women convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Women convicted of violent actions — such as robbery, assault or murder — have been ignored. In addition, no agency keeps track of how many women convicted of violent crimes were arrested for defending themselves against violence. The proposed bipartisan reforms and sentencing changes, while a welcome first step, won’t change the predicament for many women behind bars. While drug policy changes will help some women, they still fail to help tens of thousands of others currently locked away — or stop thousands more from being locked up in the future.

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