The impact of drug policies on women and families
Comments: No Responses
Federal and state drug laws and policies over the past twenty years have had specific, devastating, and disparate effects on women, and particularly on women of color and low-income women. These effects require further study and careful consideration as state and federal decision-makers evaluate existing and prospective drug laws and policies. Reliance on the criminal justice system to reduce the use, abuse, and sale of illegal drugs has had little effect on the supply and demand for these drugs in the United States. It has, however, led to sky rocketing rates of incarceration of women.
Nationally, there are now more than eight times as many women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails as there were in 1980, increasing from 12,300 in 1980 to 182,271 by2002. Between 1986 and 1999, the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses increased by 888%, surpassing the rate of growth in the number of men imprisoned for similar crimes. When all forms of correctional supervision – probation, parole, jail, and state and federal prison– are considered, more than one million women are now behind bars or under the control of the criminal justice system.
Women of color use drugs at a rate equal to or lower than white women, yet are far more likely tobe affected by current drug laws and policies:In 1997, 44% of Hispanic women and 39% of African American women incarcerated in state prison were convicted of drug offenses, compared to 23% of white women, and 26% and 24% of Hispanic and African American men, respectively. These racially disparate effects are the result, in significant part, of racially targeted law enforcement practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing policies. Selective testing of pregnan twomen of color for drug use as well as heightened surveillance of poor mothers of color in the context of policing child abuse and neglect exacerbate these racial disparities.
The underlying circumstances contributing to the dramatic increase in women’s incarceration for drug offenses, including patterns of women’s drug use, barriers to women seeking and obtaining treatment, lack of effective and appropriate treatment for women, the nature of women’s involvement in the drug trade, and patterns of prosecution and sentencing of women for drug offenses, have yet to be thoroughly examined and addressed by researchers or policy makers.
Availableresearch in these areas indicates a strong connection between women’s experiences of violence and economic and social pressures, and women’s drug use or involvement in the drug trade. Existing data also indicate that women, and particularly mothers and survivors of abuse, are less able to access or benefit from current drug treatment models. In the absence of viable drug treatment options, women’s drug use and addiction are more likely to be treated as criminal justice issues than as the health problems they truly are. Addressing women’s drug use and addiction through incarceration, rather than treatment, contributes to the escalating costs associated with current drug laws and policies.
In 1997, incarceration cost approximately $26,000 per woman per year. When the often-necessaryexpense of placing the children of incarcerated mothers in foster care is considered, the cost more than doubles. In comparison, the cost of drug treatment ranged between $1,800 for regular outpatient servicesand $6,800 for long-term residential services per client per year.
Even when they have minimal or no involvement in the drug trade, women are increasingly caught in the ever-widening net cast by current drug laws through provisions such as conspiracy, accomplice liability, and constructive possession, which expand criminal liability to reach partners, relatives, and bystanders.
Sentencing laws fail to consider the many reasons – including domestic violence, economic dependence, or dependent immigration status – that may compel women to remain silent or not report a partner or family member’s drug activity to authorities. Moreover, existing sentencing policies, particularly mandatory minimum sentencing laws, often subject women to equal or harsher sentences than those imposed upon the principals in the drug trade, who are ostensibly the target of those policies.
Women’s incarceration for drug offenses fails not only to address the issues that likely contributed to their involvement with drugs, it often exacerbates them. Sexual and physical violence against women at the hands of correctional officers is widespread in United States prisons. The abuse women experience behind prison walls has devastating consequences, particularly for those who are survivors of violence, suffer from depression, or are working to overcome addiction.
Incarcerated women’s physical and mental health is routinely put at risk by ill-conceived security policies, as well as delays in providing emergency and routine healthcare. Incarcerated mothers face emotional trauma due to separation from their children and frequently suffer from depression, loneliness, and despair. Infliction of such trauma on women with substance abuse problems is particularly problematic because these conditions often trigger the urge to use drugs.
Communities targeted by current drug laws and policies lose mothers, caregivers, and breadwinners as a result of women’s incarceration, leading to serious effects on the well-being of children and families. In most cases, when a woman is imprisoned, her child is displaced. Children are three times more likely to live with the other parent when their father, rather than mother, is incarcerated.
One in ten children with mothers incarcerated in state prison are in foster homes or agencies,and four in five (79%) live with a grandparent or relative. Women’s incarceration can result in emotional and financial hardship for their families. Family members often take custodial responsibility for the children of incarcerated mothers because the alternative may be the permanent loss of custody.
The loss of incarcerated women’s income, combined with the emotional impact on children from losing their mothers, results in increased stress on family and community members.
An estimated 28 million women (approximately 26% of women 18 years or older living in the UnitedStates) provide support and care to chronically ill, disabled, or aged family members or friends. While there is no documentation of the number of women who were caregivers prior to their incarceration, the removal of incarcerated women from their communities clearly has a significant impact on all community members.
This item is the executive summary for a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, The Brennan Center at NYU School of Law and Andrea J Ritchie
The ACLU, Break the Chains, and the Brennan Center for Justice advocate for fair drug laws and policies that adequately take into account the needs of women and their families, and address the rootcauses of women’s involvement with illegal drugs
To read the full report go to http://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file431_23513.pdf