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How criminal justice reform fails incarcerated women

Current policy proposals ignore the plight of violent female offenders

February 13, 2016 2:00AM ET

For years, criminal justice reform was political suicide. Politicians, desperate to avoid being seen as “soft on crime,” advocated harsher and harsher punishments, such as mandatory prison sentences for drug convictions and multiple convictions through the 1990s. The result was that the prison population ballooned — and with it, the number of women behind bars. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of women sent to prison more than doubled, from 44,065 to nearly 100,000.

Much of this growth has been attributed to draconian drug laws and mandatory sentencing guidelines, but even in cases where mandatory minimum guidelines do not apply, prosecutors’ and judges’ eagerness to appear tough on crime has made them unwilling to consider factoring in mitigating circumstances when imposing sentences. For women who have used violence to defend themselves against domestic violence or sexual assault, this unwillingness can mean decades, if not a lifetime, in prison.

Faced with overcrowded prisons and their exorbitant expenses, many politicians have changed their tune. Calling the country’s criminal justice system “out of balance,” Hillary Clinton now advocates reducing (but not eliminating) mandatory sentences for federal drug offenses. Congress members such as Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner are backtracking on their previous “tough on crime” stances; In the Senate, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul teamed up with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to introduce a bill allowing federal judges to hand out sentences below the mandatory minimums.

At the same time, the experiences of women in prison — and their involvement in the criminal justice system — has been attracting more attention in mainstream media and public policy discussions.  The focus has been on women convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Women convicted of violent actions — such as robbery, assault or murder — have been ignored. In addition, no agency keeps track of how many women convicted of violent crimes were arrested for defending themselves against violence.

The proposed bipartisan reforms and sentencing changes, while a welcome first step, won’t change the predicament for many women behind bars. While drug policy changes will help some women, they still fail to help tens of thousands of others currently locked away — or stop thousands more from being locked up in the future.

Let’s look at the numbers first. Nearly 113,000 women are locked up in state and federal prisons. They make up approximately 7 percent of the country’s prison population. More than half (or 59 percent) of women are in federal prisons for drug offenses. That might seem like a startling statistic until you realize that these women make up only 6.5 percent (or 7,500 women) in the country’s women’s prisons.  In state prisons, women with drug offenses account for 24 percent (or 22,000 women). Combined with the number of women in the federal system, that’s a total of 29,400 women imprisoned for drug crimes.

In contrast, 34,000 women are in state prisons for violent crimes. Discussions about rising rates of female incarceration — and the changes needed to curb it — ignore these women. That’s because their stories are messy, complicated and include victims who have been harmed or killed.

Upwards of 10,000 women are in state prisons for murder. Some are survivors of domestic violence whose actions were desperate attempts to defend themselves from increasingly violent partners. Federal guidelines play no role in their sentences, meaning that the most promising proposals on the national level will not affect their fates. For these women, reforms on the state level are desperately needed, but even in the age of criminal justice reform, few politicians are willing to advocate less draconian sentences — let alone alternatives to incarceration — for women labeled as murderers.

Even if all drugs were decriminalized tomorrow, many women would remain behind bars for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.

“Arleen” is one of these 34,000 women. Arleen has served 14 years of a 50-year sentence for murder. But her story is more nuanced than that single word lets on. Arleen spent years being abused by her live-in boyfriend, a military veteran. Several times, she ended the relationship and moved out. Each time, he apologized and promised to change. Each time, she believed him and returned. Life would be peaceful for a while, but then the arguments would begin and abuse would soon follow.

The couple was in the process of buying a house and Arleen hoped that the change from a small apartment to a more spacious house would stop his violence. Just before they closed on the property, Arleen fixed a celebratory dinner — but instead, her boyfriend started an argument, then threw her onto the couch and began to choke her. She grabbed his gun from under the couch and, breaking free, ran out of their apartment. Her boyfriend chased her. She said that, when she turned, the gun went off and she fatally shot him.

Panicking, Arleen dropped the gun and kept running, believing that he was still after her. Only later did she learn that she had fatally shot him. Now in her sixties, Arleen has applied for and been denied parole twice. If she spends the entire 50 years in prison, she will be 98 years old before she exits the prison gates.

Arleen is one of thousands of women ignored by current discussions about criminal justice reform. Her story illustrates how the criminal justice system often treats women who have endured years of violence. In 1999, the Department of Justice reported that nearly half of all women in prison had experienced abuse before their arrests. The report also noted that, of women convicted of murder, the overwhelming majority of those killed were intimate partners or family members. Since then, no other report has tracked either incarcerated women’s history of abuse or the relationships between women convicted of murder and their victims.

Even when past abuse was not the direct cause of arrest, gender violence still plays a significant role in many cases involving women’s violence. Charmaine Pfender’s is one such case. In August 1984, the 18-year-old and her friend Sara were driving around Pittsburgh on a double date with tentative plans to see a movie or go bowling when Sara pulled onto a secluded service road. In the front seat, Sara and her date began kissing. In the back, Charmaine was trying to make her date understand that she didn’t want to be groped or grabbed. In response, she said that he pulled a knife and “told me I wasn’t going to tease him no more.”

Earlier that day, Charmaine and Sara had planned to go target shooting and had stashed a gun under the driver’s seat. When she saw the knife, Charmaine grabbed the gun and ran out of the car. When her date tried to follow, she slammed the car door on his legs before firing a warning shot. The warning didn’t dissuade him. When he still charged her, she shot and killed him. She was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life without parole. This past January, she turned 50.

Drugs had nothing to do with what happened to Arleen or Charmaine. Neither they nor the men that they killed were on drugs or had anything to do with drugs. The same is true of thousands of other women behind bars. Even if all drugs were decriminalized tomorrow — and all drug-war prisoners released — they would remain behind bars for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.  

Focusing solely on drug policy reform is not enough. To truly tackle women’s incarceration, we need to move beyond talking only about nonviolent drug offenses and challenge lawmakers — and ourselves — to include the more complicated and nuanced scenarios involving women’s violence. 

Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who writes about incarceration, gender and resistance. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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