It is easy to overlook the presence of women in our prison system. After all, in Minnesota, women account for just over 7% of the prison population, a mere 737 individuals. And the same is true across the country, with women comprising just 7% of the estimated 1.53 million people held in state and federal correctional facilities. Given these small numbers, the path to reducing mass incarceration is generally framed through its impacts on men. Fewer researchers work on questions such as whether the reasons women are imprisoned are unique, whether their rehabilitative needs are different, or whether the experience of prison impacts their outcomes differently than it does men.
On a daily basis Black girls experience the world differently than their peers. Data show that from the schoolyard to the classroom, to the streets and into the juvenile justice system, adults treat Black girls differently than their white peers. Black girls are vulnerable not only to stereotypes, biases, and perceptions based on their race, but as importantly, based on their gender. Recognizing the significant impact that adult perceptions can have on children, researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality set out to examine for the first time whether adults view Black girls as possessing qualities that render them more like adults—and less innocent—than their white peers.
The National LGBT Bar Association put forth a resolution in 2013, urging federal, state and local governments to outlaw the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defense strategies, which attempt to reduce sentencing for a person accused of killing an LGBT person. These strategies are used by defense attorneys to argue that their clients’ crimes were not pre-meditated but a reaction to an unwanted sexual advance from an LGBT person or to the “discovery” of a person’s trans status, thus they warrant lighter sentencing. Such tactics have been in play as mitigating factors in sentencing since the 1960s. Today, California is the first state to have banned them; the National LGBT Bar Association is hopeful that other jurisdictions will follow in its footsteps. On May 31, 2017, the Illinois House of Representatives approved a Senate bill banning the defense. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner. A similar bill was introduced in the District of Columbia in February 2017.
A new wave of “tough on crime” policy is taking shape in the U.S., driven by a presidential administration that tirelessly stirs fears of internal and external threats. The full consequences of this new crackdown will not be known for some time. But decades of research on the effects of aggressive law enforcement provide a strong basis for understanding the challenges that lie ahead. In political rhetoric, the law-breaking individual takes center stage. Calls for stiffer penalties focus on actions within the criminal justice system. In reality, however, the fallout from get-tough law enforcement spirals outward, reaching into all corners of targeted individuals’ lives and creating devastating collateral consequences for the people who surround them. In the case of undocumented immigrant victims of gender-based violence, aggressive law enforcement can counteract vital protections and supports.
Anti-violence advocates had grave concerns about the Trump Administration. Its first 100 days have done little to allay those fears. Instead, we’ve seen a stunning lack of concern regarding the impact of leaders and policies on gender-based violence in the U.S. and internationally. If the Administration wanted to change the perception that it cares little about gender violence, fully funding VAWA, committing to continued enforcement of criminal and civil laws, and protecting the health, welfare, and dignity of those subjected to gender-based violence would be a good start. For victims of gender-based violence, such support cannot come soon enough.
The expansion in imprisonment rates in the U.S. since the 1970s is well known. Less well-reported, however, has been the way this expansion affected women. Although a small share of the prison population (7 percent), women’s imprisonment rates grew faster during the prison boom and have seen a slower decline since 2010. By 2015, over 110,000 women were in prison nationwide—of which, nearly 50% were women of color. Women have unique pathways into and out of prison: women behind bars are more likely to be parents, to have histories of drug use and family trauma, and to be raped while in prison.
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Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy
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