This Is How the Criminal Justice System Traps Women and their Families


Women and girls are one of the fastest growing populations in America’s jails and prisons, and their numbers are increasing rapidly, even as incarceration rates fall for other demographics. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 200,000 women were incarcerated in 2017. A new and illuminating piece in the New Yorker zooms in on Tulsa, Oklahoma, to explore the underlying reasons that drive the United States’ inhumanely high rates of mass incarceration.

Oklahoma, as the piece notes, “has the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the nation.” But the New Yorker makes clear that this is a nationwide problem:

Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as the war on drugs took off, incarceration rates in the U.S. grew explosively. Only in the past eight years have rates finally begun to fall for most demographic groups, with one alarming exception: women and girls.
America imprisons women in astonishing numbers. The population of women in state prisons has increased by more than eight hundred per cent in the past four decades. The number of women in local jails is fourteen times higher than it was in the nineteen-seventies; most of these women haven’t been convicted of a crime but are too poor to post bail while awaiting trial. The majority have been charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and parole violations. The result is that more than a quarter of a million children in the U.S. have a mother in jail. One in nine black children has a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated.

As other studies have noted, a majority of incarcerated women are black and Latina. Women, as the Guardian has written, “tend to enter jails in more vulnerable situations than men, as a higher percentage of women in jail were using drugs, unemployed, or receiving public assistance at the time they were arrested.” According to the Guardian, one-third of women in jail have received a diagnosis of mental illness, and almost nine out of ten women in jail report surviving sexual violence and assault (a much higher rate when compared to women in the U.S. overall). When these factors are combined with a disappearing social safety net and the cruelties of a criminal justice system that loves nothing more than criminalizing poor people for being poor, the result is more women and girls entering our nation’s jails and prisons.

The New Yorker explains what this looks like in Oklahoma:

Oklahoma, Steinberg said, has few safety nets: very little cash assistance, few childcare subsidies, abysmal health-care options for poor families. The state rejected key provisions of Obamacare in 2012, and it has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the country, with African-American children twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white children are.
Posting bail in Tulsa County is often prohibitively expensive, and the pretrial detention rate is eighty-three per cent above the national average. “Collateral toll happens very quickly with women—they can lose their job and their kids,” Steinberg said. Children with incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than those with incarcerated fathers are; once they enter the foster system, the state can terminate parental rights in less than two years. In Oklahoma, this timeline is accelerated for kids under the age of four. As a result, mothers have an incentive to plead guilty, even to crimes that they didn’t commit, when they can’t afford bail. It’s often the fastest way to get released.

The New Yorker profiled several women who entered Tulsa’s criminal justice system. All of their stories illuminate how poverty, intimate partner violence, mental illness, and addiction often work hand in hand with a legal system designed to further punish women:

As we drove back to the Still She Rises office, Hamilton told me that Oklahoma’s legal system often exacerbates women’s problems. “You can see a woman in a domestic-violence situation here, or a woman facing addiction, and all the D.A.s want to do is punish her,” she said.
Steinberg and her team have been compiling a list of costs levied by the Oklahoma court system. In truancy court, you have to pay a fine if your kid has skipped too many days of school. In family court, you have to pay for an interpreter if you’re not a fluent English speaker. Several Still She Rises clients had been caught stealing baby formula and diapers and had been sent to a court-mandated “anti-theft school” run out of a local motel. The instructor charged sixty-five dollars for the class.

You can read the full article here.

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