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Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy

A new study reveals a dramatic surge nationwide of women incarcerated for drug offenses - an 888% increase between 1986-96, in comparison to a rise of 129% for all non-drug offenses. The study by The Sentencing Project documents that while the women's prison population more than doubled during this period, drug offenses account for half (49%) of the rise.

The study, Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy, also examined the impact of drug offenses for women in three states - New York, California, and Minnesota -and found substantial variation among these states. In New York, almost the entire increase (91%) in women sentenced to prison from 1986 to 1995 was accounted for by drug offenses. In California, drug offenses represented 55% of the increase and in Minnesota, 26%.

Minority women have been disproportionately affected by the impact of drug arrest and sentencing policies. Of the women sentenced to prison for drug offenses in the three states, 91 were minorities in New York, 54% in California, and 27% in Minnesota, all substantially greater than the minority proportion of each state's population.

The study attributed the dramatic changes in women's incarceration to several factors: the impact of drug abuse on low income women; declining economic opportunities for many women; limited treatment options; and the harsh mandatory sentencing policies adopted in conjunction with the war on drugs. Overall, women in prison are disproportionately low-income, with low education levels, high rates of substance abuse (over 60%) and mental illness (24%). In addition, more than half have been physically or sexually abused.

Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report, stated that "The war on drugs' and harsh sentencing policies have combined to make a bad situation worse for many women. The unprecedented growth in the number of women prisoners affects not only women, but their thousands of children as well."

The study found considerable variation in the degree to which Hispanic women are affected by drug policies. In New York, Hispanic women were substantially overrepresented among women sentenced to prison for a drug offense in 1995 - 44% compared to their 14% share of the population - while in California, they constituted 31% of the population, but 25% of the women sentenced to prison for drug offenses.

The report also analyzed the impact of rising imprisonment on women and children. Two-thirds of women in prison are mothers to children under the age of 18, many of whom were heading single parent households prior to their incarceration. Half the women prisoners in a 1991 survey reported never having received a visit from their children while incarcerated. In most states, women convicted of drug felonies are now banned for life from receiving welfare or food stamp benefits, as well as financial aid for higher education.

The Sentencing Project called on policymakers to adopt several remedies for the growing impact of incarceration on women:

repeal mandatory sentencing laws such as New York's "Rockefeller Drug Laws" which require a 15-year sentence for sale of two ounces or possession of four ounces of a narcotic drug;
repeal the denial of welfare and education benefits for persons with a drug conviction;
expand the availability of drug treatment both within and outside the criminal justice system; and,
provide support for children of incarcerated mothers by improving parenting skills, providing greater access to treatment, and breaking the cycle of addiction and imprisonment.
The study, Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy, by Marc Mauer, Cathy Potler, and Richard Wolf, is available for $8.00 from The Sentencing Project at 1516 P St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 628-0871.

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