During Women’s History Month Don’t Forget Women Behind Bars

Joan Neal
March 29, 2016

March is Women’s History month and this year’s theme is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union.” This is certainly a noble goal and one we should aspire to attain. But as we celebrate and honor women this month, let’s not forget that women still suffer, often unjustly, in the United States. Take the criminal justice system for instance. Not only are women treated unequally in this system, they are more often than men, victimized by it. To form a more perfect union we must address this issue.

The number of women in prison has exploded over the last couple of decades. Between 1997 and 2007, the female prison population grew at nearly twice the rate of men. Today, over 100,000 women are imprisoned in federal and state institutions – a 646% increase over the last 30 years! Nearly 58% of these women were jailed for drug offenses because women are more likely than men to be imprisoned for drug and property offenses. (Bureau of Prisons) We can’t form a more perfect union while this inequity exists.

To make matters worse, a quarter of women in state prisons and one third of females in federal prisons are pregnant when they are locked up. This has resulted in a 131% increase in the number of children with a mother in prison compared to a 77% increase in those with a father in prison! (The Sentencing Project) The pipeline of women into the prison system because of mandatory minimum sentencing has left thousands of children without stable homes and deprived them of the experience of a relationship with their birth mother.

While it is certainly clear that some women are guilty of non-violent drug offenses and should be held accountable for their crimes, it is also true that many women are victims of overly long mandatory minimum sentences. We can’t form a more perfect union until judges are able to give sentences that afford women greater opportunity to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system and to be held accountable in a manner that is proportionate to their offense.

Congress can honor women and make history during this National Women’s History Month by passing much needed sentencing reform. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S.2123) is a vital reform that will reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of non-violent drug offenses and help right past wrongs by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to approximately 6,000 women and men currently in prison. Although much more reform is needed, these changes are an important first step toward addressing some of the causes of the unsustainable increase in the number of women in the federal prison system.

Now is the time to pass sentencing reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed S.2123 over 4 months ago and it is time for the bill to come to the Senate floor for an up or down vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should put justice before partisan interests and bring S.2123 to the floor for a vote right away. Passage of this reform will go a long way toward honoring National Women’s History Month while at the same time helping the country ‘Form a More Perfect Union.’