Criminalization of Women

By Sarah Torian

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 24-25

In 1994, Kemba Smith became a symbol of a national trend in criminal justice. A twenty-three year old African American woman from the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, she was sentenced to 24 years in prison for her involvement in a four million-dollar crack and powder cocaine drug operation led by her physically and verbally abusive boyfriend and his brother. She had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to drug trafficking, money laundering, and making false statements to federal agents. She had never used nor sold any drugs and had no direct knowledge of any sales. Kemba Smith is representative of a significant part of a national trend, the escalating number of women who are finding themselves behind bars for low-level involvement in drugs and other crimes.

Between 1980 and 1997, the number of women in state and federal prisons increased by 573 per cent. Much of this increase is a result of the "war on drugs" and the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines now imposed for drug offenses. "The impact of sentencing guidelines on women is astronomical," reports Michelle Jacobs, professor at Howard University Law School which hosted a three-day conference sponsored by the Lawyer's' Committee for Civil Rights Under 'the law that examined the increase in the criminalization of women. 'A woman may just be married to a man who deals drugs and the woman has only a very basic low-level involvement. She may answer the phone and take messages, receive packages at the door, and yet, with drug laws the way they are now, she gets charged with conspiracy for the total amount of the drugs. Before, judges could take into account prior convictions, families, the potential to rehabilitate. Now they can't." Drug offenses make up one-third, of women's convictions, a greater proportion than for men. Between 1990 and 1996, drug felony convictions among women in state courts jumped 37 percent to 59,027.

Drugs are not the only reason that women now comprise 16 percent of the nation's


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correction population. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) special report released in December of 1999, felony convictions of women in state courts increased by more than 20 percent for seven out of nine major crimes. (Only murder and robbery witnessed a drop in convictions.) Fraud was the crime for which there were the most convictions (33,902) in 1996, an increase of 55 percent from 1990. Larceny, the offense category with the most arrests, saw an increase in convictions of 39 percent, reaching a total of 28,786 in 1996.

The South leads the nation in the imprisonment of women. In 1998, of female state prisoners, 44 percent were held by states in the South where the incarceration rate is the highest of any region. In the South, Texas leads the way in locking up women with 10,343 female prisoners and a rate of 102 per 100,000 residents.

One of the most disturbing statistics revealed by the BJS report was the racial breakdowns of female prisoners. White women make up a great majority of the women on probation (62 percent) where African-American women represent 27 percent and Hispanic women 10 percent. Looking at women in jails and prisons, however, the numbers change drastically. White women make up only 36 percent of women in local jails, 33 percent of women in state prisons, and 29 percent of women in federal prisons. African-American women make up 44 percent of women in local jails, 48 percent in state prisons, and 35 percent in federal prisons. Hispanic women represent 15 percent of women in local jails, 15 percent in state prisons, and leap to 32 percent of women in federal prisons.

Tracy Snell, co-writer of the BJS report on women offenders could not definitively explain these differences. "This is reflective of a number of things," she explained. "It depends on the types of offenses, the criminal history, if the offender was on probation or parole at the time or the offense and so forth. But we did not collect that kind of data for this study, so it is really tough to explain."

The exponential increase in female imprisonment has a broad and devastating impact on the communities that the women leave. More than 233,600 minor children have mothers who are in jails or prisons and 1.3 million minor children have mothers under supervision by the justice system, including parole and probation. These children lose their mothers. "The impact on the community [of the imprisonment of women] is multi-layered," argues Michelle Jacobs. "If a man is arrested, the woman usually continues to care for the family. If the woman is arrested, there is rarely reciprocity. The children are usually shuttled off to foster homes or left with grandmothers who don't have the support they need."

The Center for Children of Incarcerated Mothers reports that children whose mothers are imprisoned are five times more likely to go to prisons themselves. Grassroots orgnizations like Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, Inc. (AIM) are working to support all three generations impacted by the imprisonment of mothers to turn this trend around. AIM in Atlanta is a member of this national network of community-based organizations that offers support to children, including an after-school program and transportation to visit mothers in nearby prisons; to mothers, including parenting skills and job readiness training: and to grandmothers and caregivers, including support and fellowship groups. "Our focus is intergenerational--across three generations," says Sandra Barnhill, executive director of AIM in Atlanta "AIM works intensively over a long period with all family members involved to allow for a complete investment in the entire family to begin to turn these trends around."

But the imprisonment of women is indicative of a larger economic injustice. The women who are being incarcerated are in much more dire financial straits than their male counterparts, Nearly 30 percent of women in state prisons reported receiving welfare assistance prior to their arrest, compared to 8 percent of men in state prisons. Thirty-seven percent of women in state prisons had incomes of less than six hundred dollars prior to their arrest, compared to 27 percent of men. With so much emphasis on men we haven't really been thinking about women and criminal justice." explains Jacobs. We don't know the conditions of poverty and domestic violence that lead her to an economic crime."

Sarah Torian is editorial coordinator at the Southern Regional Council.