African-American women make up only 12 percent of the female population in the U.S., but now comprise more than 50 percent of the female prison population in the U.S. This fact has led many to believe that what started as the “war on drugs” has quickly become the “war on poor black women.”
The number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by 433 percent between 1986 and 1991. But for African-American women it rose an astounding 828 percent, while the increase for white women was 241 percent, and for Latina women a 328 percent increase.
The causes of the epidemic of imprisonment of young black girls are rooted in the national zero tolerance rules, the war on drugs, policies and a juvenile justice system that treats women of color differently.
The crackdown on drug-related crimes was sold to the American public as the answer to the escalating levels of violent crime (mostly by men), but has subsequently affected women, and disproportionately women of color. Most women caught up in the drug trade play minor roles, but fall prey to the over-punitive policing and sentencing policies.
Due to Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, judges are not allowed to consider the individual and unique circumstances of a case. Even a woman with no prior offenses or with clear financial responsibility for a family, the judge is required to give a minimum sentence to those found guilty.
Experts argue that the intersection of race, class and gender puts low-income women of color, especially African-American women, in “triple jeopardy” and contributes to their disproportionate incarceration.
Incarcerating women exacerbates problems that their families must deal with in their absence. Investing public funds in effective drug treatment and gender-sensitive services to help women live a prison-free life that allows them to continue to support their families makes far more sense than incarceration both in terms of long-term community health as well as from an economic stand point – it costs far less to pay for drug treatment than incarceration.
The Women’s Prison Association’s “matrix” approach serves as a model for assisting women who might otherwise face incarceration stabilize themselves and their families. WPA emphasizes the importance of understanding how poverty, trauma and victimization, and bad choices can combine to propel women into substance abuse and criminal involvement. Successfully serving these women will mean giving access to coordinated services that address these multiple issues simultaneously. Good public policy can reduce trauma to women and families while reducing the need to spend scarce public dollars.
*Statistics for this post were obtained from The Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.
Leah Wright is a high school student at Mastery Charter School – Lenfest Campus
Katherine Bisanzis a graduate student in Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania