The Lifelong Burdens Facing Women in the Criminal Justice System

By Holly Harris

Through our work on criminal justice issues, we’ve met dozens of individuals who confront the consequences of their crimes long after they’ve served their time. As we travel across the country to pass reforms and remove barriers that people face when they leave incarceration, more and more of the people who are sharing their stories are women.

The number of women in U.S. prisons is six-and-a-half-times larger than it was 30 years ago. While the prison population has grown across the board, the rate of women behind bars has increased at nearly one and half times the rate of men. For women of color, the statistics indicate an even more sobering scenario: one in 19 black women have a chance of being sent to prison at some time in their life. The vast majority of women incarcerated are in prison for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses and property crimes. And of those who are behind bars for violent offenses, many committed offenses against those who had abused them.

But the impact on women extends far beyond those who are incarcerated. Just consider how removing a mother — especially a single mother — from a home decimates the family. More than one million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system and will carry the scarlet letter of a criminal history for the rest of their lives. That burden, and the challenges that come with it, extends to their children. One of our partner organizations, the Center for American Progress (CAP), released a study last year showing half of all American children have a parent with a criminal record. Think about that — more than 30 million children are living with a parent who has trouble accessing basic life needs such as employment, housing and education.

These problems can sometimes be more acute for women. Almost four in five formerly incarcerated women report having a hard time finding affordable housing after leaving prison. And without an address or a stable home, finding a job is next to impossible, and keeping a family together is a struggle.

And it’s not just current and formerly incarcerated women who are impacted by our broken criminal justice system. More than 80 percent of family members who pay for court fees are women, and half are mothers. These financial costs, including legal fees and bail bond, too often render these women economically unstable.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Elected officials are just starting to address the plight of women incarcerated. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin spent a significant amount of time addressing criminal justice reform during her annual State of the State speech in February, and was the first governor in the country to specifically address the growing rate of women behind bars:

“It’s a fact that Oklahoma is still number one in female incarceration and we’re consistently in the top five in male incarceration. Again, this has been a decades-long problem.”

Gov. Fallin committed to policies that would safely reduce the prison population, including legislation that would decrease the state’s mandatory drug possession sentences.

Simply put, we need more Mary Fallins.

Throughout March, as the nation celebrates Women’s History Month, the U.S. Justice Action Network and its sister organization, the Coalition for Public Safety, are launching a Medium series called “Women in the Justice System,” sharing first-hand stories and experiences of women who have been impacted by our broken justice system. We share their stories not to evoke empathy, but to expose the cracks in the system and to inspire action.

Reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses will help curb the growing female prison population. The states have led the way on reform and have provided much-needed data that shows reforms lower crime rates and recidivism rates and ultimately make us safer. Now we need Congress to act, and the only way that happens is if YOU speak out. This month, on behalf of women who have made a mistake or are helping someone who has, for those who have to explain to their children where their father is, and on behalf of those who work two jobs to pay for court fees, we encourage people everywhere to contact their Member of Congress and urge them to pass sentencing reform now.


Want more justice reform? Follow @USJusticeAction on Twitter.

U.S. Justice Action Network, which works across the country to pass legislation to end overcriminalization, safely reduce the jail and prison population and related taxpayer costs, and break down barriers for those leaving prison to successfully re-enter society.