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Criminal justice reform: A women’s issue

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The media has devoted a lot of ink and airtime to the sky-high incarceration rates here in the U.S., but sadly, that coverage often ignores a key demographic: women.

The female prison population has spiked in recent years, and since Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, we thought this would be a good time to shed more light on this disturbing trend.

{mosads}Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in prison grew by an alarming 700 percent – increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men. Over the same period, the number of women in local jails has increased 14-fold. This impact falls disproportionately on African-American women, whose rate of imprisonment is double that of white women.

Those statistics are even more disheartening when you consider approximately 60 percent of women in prison are mothers. We need to take a serious look at what it means for those women – and the children they leave behind.

Communication is often limited between women in prison and their families on the outside, creating rifts in these relationships and making it harder for women to reestablish themselves after their incarceration ends. The time inside is often isolating and cold. Many of these women receive few visitors. Mothers are also stigmatized as careless or negligent parents.

Women in the federal system are more likely to be incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. Some 94 percent of women in federal prison are serving a sentence for nonviolent drug, property or public-order offenses, as well as 63 percent of women in state prisons. Our system needs to do better addressing the root causes of these crimes and offering alternatives to incarceration for women who pose no grave threat to society. We need to pursue policies that offer better access to community supervision programs and treatment instead of jail time for those with drug addictions.

The women who are incarcerated in this country often struggle with drug abuse or mental illness, further complicating their ability to return to life outside. They face systems and policies designed for men. With limited resources, prisons and jails are often poorly equipped to address the challenges women face when they enter the justice system. Women often leave prison with little hope of recovery and face greater parental stress. They have fewer options for financial independence, as 79 percent of these women reported they are unable to afford housing after their release. We can remedy some of these problems by strengthening our re-entry programs.

These challenges aren’t limited to women in prison. There are also costs – both emotional and financial – on the women whose spouses or significant others are incarcerated. One study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that in more than half of all cases, family members on the outside are primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction, and 83 percent of those family members were women. We need a holistic approach to address the numerous familial and societal challenges of women incarcerated that affect us all.

While female incarceration declined 2 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, criminal-justice reform is still as critical as ever.  As the laboratories of democracy, red and blue states across our nation have enacted innovative reforms that have prioritized public safety while strengthening families, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.

We must pay more attention to the spike in female inmates and, more importantly, the emotional and financial costs of women in and out of prison. As a society we are not only failing ourselves, we are failing our mothers, wives, and sisters. For that reason – and so many others – we hope Congress moves comprehensive criminal-justice reform to the president’s desk in 2017.

Rep. Mia Love represents Utah’s 4th District. Holly Harris is executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, the largest bipartisan organization working to reform the justice system. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill. 


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