In a report released Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and two other groups charged that US drug policy is bringing severe, disproportionate harm to women -- many of them mothers -- who are being sent to prison in ever increasing numbers on drug charges even though they typically play only minor roles in drug trafficking groups. The report, "Caught in the Net" was released at the end of a two-day national conference on the subject in New York City. That conference brought criminal justice officials, sentencing reform activists, and others together to consider reforms that would reduce the harmful impact of the drug war on women.
"Drug convictions have caused the number of women behind bars to explode, leaving in the rubble displaced children and overburdened families," the report said, and the hard numbers back it up. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased eight-fold to 101,000 last year. Roughly one-third of women prisoners are drug offenders, compared to about one-fifth of male prisoners.
"Many of the drug conspiracy and accomplice laws were created to go after the kingpins," said the ACLU women's rights project director, Lenora Lapidus, a lead author of the report. "But women who may simply be a girlfriend or wife are getting caught in the web as well, and sent to prison for very long times when all they may have done is answer the telephone."
When it comes to drug war injustice, it's not just a man's world, the report found. Among its findings:
* Many women who are convicted of drug crimes were only peripherally involved, and some were convicted solely because they failed to turn in their partners. Sentencing laws fail to acknowledge factors that may keep women from going to police, such as economic dependence or fear of abuse.
* Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned on drug charges at far higher rates than white women even though they have similar illegal drug use rates. The report suggests prosecutorial discretion, police tactics, and practices such as the selective testing of poor, minority women for drug use while pregnant play a role.
* Most women in prison leave children behind. The consequences can be shattering for both mothers, who may lose parental custody, and children, thousands of whom are placed in foster homes.
The traditional view that women and mothers should be treated more gently gets turned on its head when it comes to drug-using or drug-selling women, said Florida State University criminologist Bruce Bullington. "It's not just an issue of drugs, but of embedded moral values," he said. "We demonize these women, and it comes back to haunt us in a variety of ways," he told the Associated Press.