Drug laws putting too many women in prison, reform group says
January 29, 2000
From Correspondent Frank Buckley
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men since 1980 and imprisonment of women for drug offenses has played a major role in this upsurge, says a study issued by The Sentencing Report, a prison reform organization in Washington, D.C.
The study also says there are now nearly seven times as many women in state and federal prisons as in 1980.
The number of women prisoners rose from 12,300 in 1980 to 82,000 in 1997, a rise of 573 percent, the group says. Drug offenses were cited as accounting for 49 percent of the rise in women in state prisons from 1986 to 1996, compared with 32 percent of the increase for men.
The number of women imprisoned for drug offenses rose by 888 percent from 1986 to 1996, in contrast to a rise of 129 percent for all non-drug offenses, The Sentencing Project says.
The Project found that drug offenses accounted for 91 percent of the increase in women sentenced to prison in New York from 1986 to 1995, 55 percent in California and 26 percent in Minnesota. African American and Hispanic women represented a disproportionate share of the women sentenced to jail for a drug offense, the group says.
End to mandatory sentencing sought
The report calls for the repealing of mandatory sentencing laws such as New York's "Rockefeller Drug Laws," which require a 15-year sentence for the sale of 2 ounces or possession of 4 ounces of drugs.
It says the availability of drug treatment inside and outside the criminal justice system needs to be expanded and resources need to be provided to address the needs of children of incarcerated women.
The report also urges an end to the denial of welfare and education benefits for those convicted of a drug felony.
Anne Elliott, who runs Project Greenhope, an alternative to incarceration for women convicted in New York, shares The Sentencing Project's views.
"Most of them are non violent drug offenders who need treatment and who would do much better in a treatment program than in a punitive situation," she said.
Elliott added, "The ultimate goal is to keep people out of prison and to help them stay with their families and to become productive members of society."
The Sentencing Project found that two-thirds of women in prison have children who are younger than 18. Many of the women were single parents.
New York facility considered a model
The Bedford Hills correctional facility in New York is considered a model among reform advocates.
Imprisoned women are provided with various prevention and treatment programs. Mothers are able to live with their newborns for several months and to visit older children at a children's center.
Elaine Lord, the facility's superintendent, said the unique bond between mother and child should be considered when deciding whether a woman should be imprisoned.
"Sending people to prison increases the chances of their children going to prison, so we need to look at that in terms of breaking the future cycles," she said.
Private employers increasingly tap prison labor force
U.S. Department of Justice
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