Women in Prison

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin says that there is a disturbing new trend in the incarceration of women – not just nationally, but here in Vermont.

(Kunin) Since 1980 the number of women in prison in the U.S. has risen almost 400 percent, double the rate of men. Vermont, surprisingly, exceeds the national trend of sending more women to jail. Vermont women now comprise 22 percent of the corrections population; the national average is 17 percent.

The most shocking trend is the increase in the number of Vermont women who are being jailed for non-violent crimes. Since 1995 there as been a 437 percent increase in the number of women jailed for non-violent crimes. Let me repeat, these women – 80 percent of whom are mothers of school age children – are not in jail because they are dangerous. The most serious, most frequent offense for incarcerated women is “false pretenses” which means writing a bad check. For men, the most frequent offense is sexual assault on a minor.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of new cases in the Vermont prison system has gone down for men in the last four years while it has gone up for women. To add to the injustice, women often receive longer sentences than men.

Who are these women? The most recent figures state that more than 80 percent percent suffer from drug addiction, 20 percent came into prison pregnant, and two percent gave birth in custody.

What is going on here?

One answer is the zero tolerance policy of the war on drugs. Women, who are at the bottom of drug ladder, either buying drugs to feed their own habits or getting caught in connection with boyfriends or husbands, are arrested for these minor infractions. Another possibility is that women are more compliant in court, more ready to accept blame than men.

Most significantly, there has been a change in attitude. A few years ago when I was governor, the trend was not to incarcerate women because of the effect on their children and because for the most part, they were not considered dangerous. That attitude has been stood on its head. Even in domestic violence cases, if a woman fights back, she is likely to be jailed along with the man. Some see this as backlash against the prosecution of abusive men.

It is time to closely examine this destructive trend and find out why so many women are in jail for non-violent crimes. And, we must invest in drug treatment, mental health services, and job skills to prevent women from going to jail in the first place, and keeping them home with their children, once released. This is a task for the Legislature and the Congress.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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