Thursday, March 17, 2005

ACLU on women in prison

I happened to have enjoyed (and suffered) the happy (and occasionally, completely miserable) experience of raising a child whose mother was incarcerated. The depth of the impact on my goddaughter, who was twelve when she came to us, was profound, long lasting, and something I couldn't have understood without having lived through the experience. So I was glad to see this AP article about a report from ACLU national on a seldom-discussed topic of prisons' impact on women and children. Here's some choice parts:
"Drug convictions have caused the number of women behind bars to explode, leaving in the rubble displaced children and overburdened families," the document says.

The number of imprisoned women is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of men, mostly because of tougher drug laws. There were 101,000 women in state and federal prisons in 2003, an eight-fold increase since 1980; roughly one-third were drug offenders, compared to about one-fifth of male inmates.

"Many of the drug conspiracy and accomplice laws were created to go after the kingpins," said the ACLU women's rights project director, Lenora Lapidus, a lead author of the report. "But women who may simply be a girlfriend or wife are getting caught in the web as well, and sent to prison for very long times when all they may have done is answer the telephone."

Lapidus acknowledged that legislation addressing the situation would probably need to be gender-neutral. But she and her fellow authors — from New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice and the advocacy group Break the Chains — make a detailed case that existing drug laws "have had specific, devastating and disparate effects on women."

Among their contentions:

—Many women are ensnared in drug investigations despite peripheral involvement, sometimes solely because they failed to turn in their partners to police. Sentencing laws fail to consider factors such as physical abuse or economic dependence that may draw women into drug abuse or deter them from notifying authorities of a partner's drug activity.

—Treatment programs, to the extent they exist, often are tailored for men and prove relatively ineffective for women.

—Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned for drug offenses at higher rates than white women even though their rates of illegal drug use are comparable. Factors include prosecutors' decisions, policing tactics and selective testing of pregnant minority women for drug use.

—Most imprisoned women, and relatively few imprisoned men, leave behind children for whom they were the sole primary caretaker. The separation can be shattering for mothers, who may lose parental rights, and for children, thousands of whom are placed in foster care at state expense.

The report makes an economic case for change, contending that the combined annual cost of imprisoning a mother and placing a child in foster care is seven times the cost of an intensive one-year drug treatment program.

See ACLU's press release issued today and go here to get a copy of the report.

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