There has been a rise in the incarceration of women in the United States. In the past quarter-century, there has been an undeniable change for women within the criminal justice system. The number of women being incarcerated has exploded because of a few different factors. While the number of incarcerations has risen so has the rise of women suffering from addiction.
Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 750%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017. This is the effect of stricter drug sentencing laws expanding law enforcement efforts and the change in culture surrounding women. On top of that, more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. Women are beating men in rising incarceration numbers. Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-five percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14% of men in prison; 26% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 17% among incarcerated men. The number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that misguided federal, state, local drug policies have driven the mass incarceration of women. The differences in state-to-state policies have led to dramatic rises in Oklahoma and Arizona. While the incarceration rates in other states like Maine haven’t seen such a dramatic rise. Addiction and alcoholism are a big part of why the number of women are going to prison. In Ohio, officials have had to reorganize some of their prisons. There just isn’t enough room for the women coming through the doors because of addiction-related crimes. Since 2018, more than 3,600 women have ended up in jail in Montgomery County, Ohio, for addiction-related crimes, a number that’s doubled since 2014.
A Big Problem
The “War on Drugs” has fueled this problem. President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs in 1971, setting in motion a tough-on-crime policy agenda that continues to produce disastrous results today. Policymakers at all levels of government passed harsher sentencing laws and increased enforcement actions, especially for low-level drug offenses. More than 61% percent of women in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug-related crimes. Women, particularly women of color, are affected by a plea bargaining system that punishes those either unwilling or just unable to provide information on others. Regulations that bar people with a drug conviction from essential needs from public assistance, for example, housing assistance, only feed into recidivism rates. The “War on Drugs” focused on law and order rather than any type of program to help with an addiction or help with job training.
Conspiracy charges are a perfect example of how changing drug laws can be targeted at women. These laws were initially created to target high-level members of illicit drug organizations. Now, they are sweeping up women for being nothing more than living with a partner or family member involved in some level of drug sales. Women with addictions, but never participated in the traffic or sales of drugs, are convicted under these laws and receive prison time that is unfit for the crime truly committed. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing keeps them behind bars for 20 or 30 years. Rather than treating the root problem of addiction, women are put away for decades.
Women and Addiction
Addictions can be different because of gender. The reasons women may become addicted to substances statistically differ from those than men. Science has shown that compared to men, women typically use less often and fewer amounts and fall into addiction. Hormones can play a role in how women use or relapse. Scientists that have studied substance use have discovered that women who use drugs may have issues related to hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. In addition, women themselves describe unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and attempts to self-treat mental health problems. Problems facing women today are far different than 20-30 years ago. So, of course, the reasons why women use substances have changed. The laws created by the “War on Drugs” don’t apply to women anymore. These laws haven’t in a long time. We are putting our women behind bars rather than taking that tax money and investing in them.
Mass incarceration has affected every gender and race. Laws that punish addiction only help fuel recidivism and relapse rates. Once in the system, it is incredibly hard to get out. The same applies to addiction. Once you have experienced one or both it changes you to the core. Being in prison is not normal. Being addicted to crack and the crimes committed to keep that addiction going are not normal. These experiences change you. These experiences change what normalcy looks like. We need to adapt to the change in our society or we will continue to fail the women and men of this country.