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How the Drug War Targets Women

The drug war has come down on women like a huge hammer in recent years. During the 1990s drug offenders accounted for the largest source of the total growth among female inmates (36 percent). As of 2004, almost one-third of all women prisoners were convicted of drug offenses; in federal prisons, this figure was 65%. In 1979 only ten percent of women in state prison were drug offenders. Much of the increase in women prisoners comes from the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the 1980s crackdown on crime. Under many of these laws, mitigating circumstances (e.g., having children, few or no prior offenses, non-violent offenses) are rarely allowed. A majority of women in prison are there for the first time; many had no prior felony convictions. When the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws (New York) were passed in 1974, only 400 women were in prison and only 100 were in for drugs. By 2004 about 3000 women were in prison (40 percent for drugs); almost 87 percent of the women in for drugs were either black or Latina. What needs to be underscored is the fact that arrests on drug charges for women reflect their secondary status in the big world of illegal drug dealing (estimated to be around $500 billion yearly). Figures from the Department of Justice show that women are “overrepresented among low level drug offenders” and are “not principal figures in criminal organizations or activities.” Regardless, they nevertheless receive sentences that are similar to “high level” drug offenders. A detailed study of New York State found that in 1998 a total of 63 percent of those sent to prison were convicted of the lowest level drug offenses, what are called felony classes C-E. Another study notes that women most often serve as “mules” (those who carry drugs for the drug cartels and other high level dealers) for boyfriends or lovers, often doing so because of threats to their lives. Still another report notes that “Just as male counterparts, female couriers are small time players in economy controlled by narco dictators, drug lords and barons, military and intelligence agencies, the police, organized crime, and so on.” Continuing, the report notes that “male couriers are able to realize a greater share of profits, unlike females who are paid a flat rate, tricked or simply coerced into trafficking in drugs.” Many of these women have been used by drug-dealers “as decoys for smugglers on their flight who pass easily through customs with large quantities of cocaine or heroine.” A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union notes that women are indeed very small cogs in the illegal drug market, with many getting involved as “a means of supplementing income in the face of unemployment, low-wage and unstable jobs, lack of affordable housing, and cuts to social programs such as child care, social assistance, and health care.” In many cases their role is “limited to answering telephones or living in a home used for drug related activities.” The case of Chrissy Taylor is typical, as this report explains:
“Chrissy Taylor was incarcerated at the age of 19 based on her marginal involvement in her boyfriend’s scheme to manufacture methamphetamine. Her boyfriend asked her to go to a store in Mobile, Alabama to pick up a shipment of chemicals. Based on his assurance that the mere purchase and possession of the chemicals was legal, she went to the store and bought them. As it happened, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were working with the chemical store in a reverse-sting operation. The agents sold Chrissy the chemicals and then arrested both her and her boyfriend, not for possession or purchase of the chemicals – neither of which is in and of itself illegal – but for possession with intent to manufacture methamphetamines.”
A study of more than 60,000 federal drug cases by the Minneapolis Star Tribune found that “men were more likely than women to offer evidence to prosecutors in exchange for shorter sentences, even if the information placed others, including the women in their lives, in jeopardy.” Because women are such minor players in the drug business, they rarely have any useful information for prosecutors. Whatever information they do have, they are reluctant to divulge it, since doing so might endanger loved ones. Thus, they have “less currency with which to bargain their way out of harsh sentences.” Like the drug war in general, the “little fish” get caught while the “big fish” get away. Randall G. Shelden is Professor of Criminal Justice at UNLV. His web site is:
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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