A new study by the Sentencing Project found a dramatic surge nationwide in the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses -- an 888% increase between 1986-1996, compared with a 129% increase for all non-drug offenses. While the women's prison population more than doubled during that period, drug offenses accounted for 49% of the rise.
"Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy," also examined the impact of drug offenses for women in three states, New York, California and Minnesota, finding substantial variation among them. In New York, a whopping 91% of the increase in women sentenced to prison from 1986 to 1985 was due to drug offenses. Drug offenses represented 55% of the increase in California and 26% in Minnesota.
Minority women have been impacted disproportionately by drug policies. Of the women sentenced to prison for drug offenses in those states, 91% were minorities in New York, 54% in California, and 27% in Minnesota, all substantially greater than the minority proportion of each state's population.
The study attributed the dramatic rise in women's incarceration to several factors: the impact of drug abuse on low income women; declining economic opportunities for many women; limited treatment options; and the harsh mandatory sentencing policies adopted in conjunction with the war on drugs. Overall, women in prison are disproportionately low-income, with low education levels, high rates of substance abuse (over 60%) and mental illness (24%). In addition, more than half have been physically or sexually abused.
Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of the Sentencing Project, said, "The 'war on drugs' and harsh sentencing policies have combined to make a bad situation worse for many women. The unprecedented growth in the number of women prisoners affects not only women, but their thousands of children as well."
The study found considerable variation in the degree to which Hispanic women are affected by drug policies. In New York, Hispanic women were substantially over-represented among women sentenced to prison for drug offenses in 1995 -- 44% compared to their 14% share of the population -- while in California, they constituted 31% of the population, but 25% of the women sentenced to prison for drug offenses.
The report also analyzed the impact of rising imprisonment on women and children. Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers to children under the age of 18, many of whom were heading single parent households prior to their incarceration. Half the women inmates in a 191 survey reported never having received a visit from their children while incarcerated. In most states, women convicted of drug felonies are now banned for life from receiving welfare or food stamp benefits, as well as financial aid for higher education.
The report makes several recommendations to policymakers, including repeal of mandatory sentencing laws such as New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws; repeal the denial of welfare and education benefits for person with a drug conviction; expand the availability of drug treatment both within and outside the criminal justice system; and provide support for children of incarcerated mothers by improving parenting skills, providing greater access to treatment, and breaking the cycle of addiction of imprisonment.
"Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy" was authored by Marc Mauer, Cathy Potler and Richard Wolf, and is available for $8 from the Sentencing Project, 1516 P St., NW, Washington, DC 20005, (202) 628-0871, http://www.sentencingproject.org.