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First Person

Women in the Criminal Justice System Need Their Own Social Justice Voice

Campaigns like #MeToo and Time's Up have elevated the conversation about women’s issues. But one sector of society is conspicuously missing in this discussion: incarcerated women.

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Gender equality appears to be having a moment. Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement and related Time’s Up campaign against sexual harassment have elevated the conversation about women’s issues worldwide. But one sector of society is conspicuously missing in this discussion: women in the criminal justice system.

Women cycling through incarceration and community supervision often have no voice and receive little air time. You rarely hear of them or about them, and when you do it’s to make an example of the limitations of justice reform when it comes to gender. There’s the 16-year-old sex-trafficking victim who killed her would-be rapist and the 63-year-old woman serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug conviction. There’s also women like Thomia Hunter, whose life sentence for killing her ex-boyfriend was commuted because his abuse wasn’t brought up at trial.

For many women, their entry into the system is often preceded by a life of violence, trauma, discrimination, or sexual and physical assault. However, the current system fails to acknowledge or understand their pathway to prison even amid an alarming increase in the arrest and incarceration rates for women. So, the already vulnerable become even more so.

Where’s the outrage and cries for reform? The silence is deafening.

Across the United States, women have become the fastest-growing segment of the prison population according to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, which showed an 834 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated in state prisons between 1978 and 2015. That’s more than double the pace of growth among men.

Across the board, in state and federal prisons and local jails, the number of incarcerated women jumped by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, according to The Sentencing Project. Even more striking than those statistics is the fact that little progress has been made in reversing these gender-biased trends. In states like California, recent arrest trends data show that female arrest rates are climbing at a disturbing pace even as overall arrest numbers decline.

The report by the Public Policy Institute of California found a 62 percent increase in the number of women arrested for violent felonies and a 67 percent increase for misdemeanor assaults. In contrast, men saw a 37 percent decline in felony arrests and a 25 percent drop in arrests for misdemeanor assaults.

Where’s the outrage and cries for reform? The silence is deafening.

When I recently wrote about this topic, I was struck by the number of smug comments, made mostly by men, claiming this proves the genders are equal. That’s simply not the case, especially when much has been said and done when it comes to criminal justice reform for men.

I am not making excuses for women, and crimes should absolutely be punished. However, it is important to understand the disparities between men and women in the criminal justice system if we’re to identify potential policy solutions.

Reports on arrest trends from California and New York serve as a blueprint for other states to conduct their own system-wide research into the scope and impact of the problem. And even then, states need to push further with strategic conversations and evidence-based interventions to craft sustainable, gender-responsive solutions. Only then will gender equality truly have its moment.

834%
Increase in number of women incarcerated in state prisons from 1978-2015 Source
62%
Increase in number of women arrested for violent felonies in California from 1980-2016 Source
37%
Decrease in number of men arrested for violent felonies in California from 1980-2016 Source
700%
Increase in number of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails from 1980-2016 Source
67%
Increase in number of women arrested for misdemeanor assaults in California from 1980-2016 Source
25%
Decrease in number of men arrested for misdemeanor assaults in California from 1980-2016 Source