Democratic and Republic officials at a conference Tuesday said too many women are being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a troubling trend both groups said they were committed to tackling.
From Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) to Republican Rep. Mia Love (Utah) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there was bipartisan agreement that most of the women in jails and prison would be better served by drug rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than harsher sentences. They noted that most women in the criminal-justice system are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. And because most incarcerated women have small children, locking them away can destroy an already fragile family.
The discussion came during a day-long conference called “Women Unshackled,” presented by the Justice Action Network and sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Coalition for Public Safety and Google.
Harris, a former state attorney general, broke down the issue for the attendees, noting that there are 215,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons. The solution, she said, is not so much to be “tough on crime. We need to be smart on crime.”
“Nearly one-third of all female prisoners in the world are right here in the United States … and one of the fastest growing segments of our prison and jail population is women. We need to be smarter,” she said. “And the answer, by the way, is not to build more prisons, and the answer is certainly not to privatize those prisons. … And the answer, Jeff Sessions, is not to return to relying on mandatory minimum sentences!”
Harris’s admonishment of the attorney general, who has directed federal prosecutors to pursue severe penalties for drug offenders, drew applause and cheers. Sessions’s policies, which also have been condemned by some Republican lawmakers and conservative activists, are a reversal of efforts by the Obama administration to reduce penalties and reliance on harsh mandatory sentences for certain nonviolent offenders.
Last week, Harris and several Senate colleagues introduced legislation that would improve conditions for incarcerated women, including banning solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant women, provide better visitation policies for parents and children, and make available a range of counseling and treatment services. Harris also is working on legislation to reform the bail system, so that people who don’t pose a high risk aren’t stuck in jail simply because they can’t afford to make bail.
Fallin said she was “not proud of being number one in the country for incarcerating women.” In 2014, the Sentencing Project reported that Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate was 142 per 100,000, more than twice the national rate.
Fallin said she has called for increased spending for substance abuse and mental health services, particularly for what she called low-level, nonviolent offenders.
“There are better solutions, and we have to find the right type of treatment to keep them from going into incarceration, to keep their families together,” she said.
She added that children of incarcerated parents are “five times as likely to enter the criminal-justice system. … Through Smart on Crime policies and solutions, we can break the intergenerational cycle of children following into the footsteps of their parents and grandparents.”
Some male lawmakers also spoke at the event, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.). But much of the discussion was among women, including formerly incarcerated women and activists with various organizations working to improve conditions for women in the criminal-justice system and those who have served time and are trying to rebuild their lives. More than 500 signed up to attend the conference.
Love said she has been frustrated that “neither chamber of Congress has actually brought forth criminal-justice legislation, especially because it’s got such bipartisan support.”
She has co-sponsored legislation for juvenile-justice reform and to help ex-offenders transition back into their communities.
Jackson Lee said she and Love had co-sponsored legislation, “evidence that criminal justice is nonpartisan and bipartisan. Pain can be felt everywhere. If we all understand the pain of incarceration, we can put aside any differences we have and come together to be problem solvers.”