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ACLU: More Women in Prison Bad for Families, Communities

Experts say an increasing incarceration rate for women is having negative effects on their families and communities. (Lauren J/
Experts say an increasing incarceration rate for women is having negative effects on their families and communities. (Lauren J/
December 15, 2015

NEW YORK – Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population with their numbers rising steadily for three decades.

The American Civil Liberties Union attributes the trend partly to the war on drugs and incarceration of nonviolent offenders, which describes more than 80 percent of the female prison population in New York.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP), says poor mental health can be a pathway to prison, and many women end up in jail because they lack mental health resources.

Fettig says these trends have been detrimental to the communities and children of these women, both in the state and nationally.

"They tend to do worse in school,” she states. “They have behavioral problems, and research is making connections between parental incarceration and the subsequent incarceration of children.

“Taking the primary caretaker away from a child at a critical point in their development has negative outcomes both for the child and the family, but also for the community at large."

More than 40 percent of women in New York prisons reported having a serious mental illness in 2007 research.

Fettig says it isn't only women of color who are affected by the criminal justice system. More white women also are being sentenced, in part because of the methamphetamine and opioid epidemics.

Women's pathways to the criminal justice system also differ from those of men. They are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, or other forms of victimization, according to the American Jail Association.

Fettig says alternatives to incarceration are needed to address the outcomes of women impacted by these issues.

"What we see is a huge need, quite frankly, for alternatives to incarceration where women can remain in the community, if not directly with their children, at least in contact with their children," says Fettig. "Because so many women are nonviolent offenders – drug-related or property crimes."

The advocacy group The Sentencing Project says the number of women in prison has risen at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. Currently, more than 1 million are under some type of supervision by the criminal justice system.

Nia Hamm, Public News Service - NY