From the report Women in Prison by Sarah Glazer:
The number of women in state and federal prisons has surged since 1978 by nearly 800 percent — twice the growth rate for men. Mandatory sentences for drug offenses enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have hit women particularly hard, many experts say. But some prosecutors and Republicans dispute the claim that the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately hurt women. They say mandatory sentencing has reduced crime, helped break up drug rings and ended sentencing disparities. Reformers hope states' recent efforts to reduce prison populations and spend more on drug treatment will help women. But they say women still remain an afterthought in the penal system. For example, reformers say courts and prisons rarely recognize women's responsibility as mothers or the factors underlying their participation in crime, such as domestic abuse. The justice system, women's advocates say, needs to think creatively about how to help female prisoners. Meanwhile, in the juvenile system, girls often receive harsher punishments than boys who commit similar offenses.
In 2015, Ramona Brant had served almost 21 years of a life sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, even though she said she was merely a bystander in the dealings of an abusive boyfriend.1
Brant said her boyfriend, who authorities alleged had been running a multimillion-dollar interstate drug operation, had beaten Brant so severely that she had landed in the emergency room numerous times. When Brant tried to leave him, she said, he beat up her brother and threatened to kill her mother.
Brant denied dealing drugs. She thought she had a defense: the hospital records and police reports documenting the abuse that forced her to accompany her boyfriend during drug-dealing trips. However, her public defender never presented those records at the trial.
Under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines in force at the time, the judge sent her to prison for life, citing the amount of drugs her boyfriend's drug ring had sold. In December 2015, President Barack Obama granted clemency to Brant, and she was released from prison on Feb. 2, 2016.2
“There are a lot of Ramonas” still serving lengthy sentences, says Amy Povah, who served more than nine years of a 24-year sentence in federal prison in connection with the ecstasy-drug-selling activities of her husband before receiving clemency in 2000.3
Povah is founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit in Malibu, Calif., that seeks clemency for prisoners serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. “A lot of [women] are like me,” she says. “We didn't wake up one day and say, ‘I want to sell drugs.’ We were in love with a man or we participated in some minor way, but it was the man driving it, and we were held equally culpable for their actions.”
Since 1978, the female population in state and federal prisons has surged by almost 800 percent, about twice the growth rate for men, although women are only 7 percent of the nation's prison population.4
Brant's case exemplifies many of the forces that experts say have helped drive this rise:
Ramped-up anti-drug enforcement starting in the mid-1980s;
State and federal laws imposing lengthy mandatory sentences that don't take into account the personal circumstances of women;
Increasingly aggressive prosecution, and
Lack of treatment for the root causes of crime, such as addiction.
The majority of women in prison, according to researchers, have suffered some kind of trauma, such as domestic or sexual violence; many are addicts; and many suffer from serious mental illness.5 “Prison is a place where those things generally will get worse — for mothers and their children,” says Georgia Lerner, executive director of the Women's Prison Association in New York City, which helps women involved in the criminal justice system.
About half of the nation's 222,000 women behind bars are being held in local jails, where the female population has exploded in recent years, jumping fourteenfold since 1970. During that same period, the male jail population increased only fivefold, according to a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research organization in New York City, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Jails detain people who are awaiting trial — often because they cannot afford bail — or for low-level crimes carrying a sentence of a year or less.6
Women are the poster child for “what's wrong with America's use and misuse of jails,” especially when faced with women's cumulative vulnerabilities, according to Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for MacArthur. As low-income, single heads of households, they often end up in jail because they can't afford bail or fines. Then, for many women, jails become gateways to longer-term incarceration in state prisons.7
Experts are still trying to tease out the causes for the dramatic rise in women being incarcerated.
“Even after doing this research we don't have a complete answer to this question,” says Elizabeth Swavola, lead author of the Vera report and senior program associate with Vera's Center on Sentencing and Corrections. She cites one factor in particular: an increased focus on arresting people for low-level, quality-of-life offenses, such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct and vagrancy. That approach, plus the escalation in the nation's so-called war on drugs in the 1980s and '90s, targeted low-level activities such as drug possession, in which women are more likely to be involved, according to the Vera Institute.8
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