America’s largest growing prison demographic is women. Over the last 30 years, the number of incarcerated females in the US has skyrocketed 800 percent — and most of them are serving time for non-violent drug or poverty-related crimes.
Take a minute to let that sink in.
To put that number into context, in the same amount of time, the amount of incarcerated men has risen by “only” 416-percent…
If anything else in our society escalated that much, that quickly, it would undoubtedly draw the public's attention and likely result in national outrage.
Taxes up 800 percent? Grab your pitchforks, people. We’ve got a government to overthrow! Sea level has risen 800 percent? Call in the national guard! Trump's approval ratings jumped 800 percent!? Yeah, pack your things, we're moving to Canada…
But women in prison? That number somehow just doesn’t seem to draw the same kind of emotional reaction. Even when you realize that two thirds of those “criminals” are not being locked up for violent crimes.
Most of them are in there just for being poor and/or enjoying drugs.
And, let’s break that down a bit further, because it gets even more shameful when you do: 60-percent of those women in prison are mothers, 73-percent of them have diagnosed mental illnesses, and 32.6-percent of them are black (a number that is outrageous when you consider that black women make up only 12.8-percent of the general population).
This is largely the result of mandatory minimums, which require that a person serve a certain amount of time for a given crime. For cases that require a minimum sentence, the presiding judge has no power of discretion to shorten or replace jail time with alternative forms of punishment. The law is the law and the law requires X person goes to jail for X amount of time for X crime – regardless of circumstance, mental or physical health, or any other variables that might be in play.
It is archaic. And it is a huge problem here in the US. Not just for women, but for Americans at large. While this country may only account for 4.4-percent of the world population, 22-percent of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated here. Partially because our justice system is so bent, and in part, because private prisons are BIG money in America. These are businesses, and their jail cells are their product – keep them full and the money keeps on flowing. Which, only incentivizes incarceration and encourages longer sentences for smaller crimes.
We are the world’s prison nation.
But, veteran litigators like Holly Harris still think there’s hope. At a conference in Washington DC the Executive Director of the US Justice Action Network said that, lawmakers across the country are starting to join the fight against this culture of rampant imprisonment. “Every state in the country now is going to be looking at more aggressive criminal justice reforms,” she said at the conference.
Harris maintains that the drug epidemic is the root cause of this mass incarceration of women, and that mandatory sentencing is just one aspect of a much larger, much more systemic problem in America.
Which is probably right. If we saved our prison cells just for violent criminals and dangerous members of society, we wouldn’t have this problem. If we didn’t criminalize drugs like marijuana and lock people up all willie-nillie for possession, there would be a lot of American families that would be better off – families that are separated, currently, who would otherwise be living together.
For a nation as obsessed with the concept of “freedom” as America is, this kind of mass incarceration is perverse. Lady justice, if she were here to judge us, would not be proud.
But, then again, she'd probably be locked up anyway.