Mass Incarceration and Black Women

sisters-journer-larry-poncho-brownMass Incarceration: Triple Jeopardy for Women in a “Color-Blind” and Gender-Neutral Justice System
by Sandra Enos, Bryant University (2012)

The number of women serving sentences of more than a year grew by 757 percent between 1977 and 2004—nearly twice the 388 percent increase in the male prison population. Although the size of the gap varies, female prison populations have risen more quickly than male populations in all 50 states. The trend has also been persistent, with median annual growth rates for women exceeding growth rates for men in 22 of the last 27 years, including each of the past 11 years (Frost, Greene and Pranis, The Punitiveness Report: Hard Hit: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women 2006).

Feeding the beast: The growth in the population behind bars

Two factors control the size and composition of prison and jail populations; first is the number of commitments, that is, the number of offenders sentenced on a criminal charge to prison or jail or returned for a violation of probation or parole. The more that judges use incarceration instead of community supervision, like probation and other alternatives to punish offenders, the larger the prison population will grow. The second factor that constitutes the prison population is the length of sentences; the longer those inmates are confined and the less likely they are to achieve early release through parole, the larger the size of the prison population.

A War on Crime and Drugs: Casualties and Strategies

Two important works of recent scholarship examine the roots and branches of mass incarceration. The New Jim Crow (Alexander 2012) and Imprisoning Communities (Clear 2007) point to the complex nature of the criminal justice system and the societal impact of mass incarceration.

The New Jim Crow examines the growth of the prison population, focusing mainly on the incarceration of poor African American men, primarily from the inner city. Alexander argues that rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have expanded police powers to stop and frisk, allowing them to conduct pretense stops of whomever they wish, based on a modicum of suspicion. She suggests that this has led to aggressive policing in poor neighborhoods, targeting poor African American men and women and paying less attention to white offenders who constitute the majority of drug users and traffickers.

The result has been that African Americans and Latinos account for seventy-five percent of all those imprisoned for drug offenses despite the fact that drug use among whites exists at a rate greater than that of African Americans and Latinos (Travis 2002). Multiple data sources establish the greater prevalence of drug use among white youth despite the impression by the general public that drug crime is a crime of poor ghetto African Americans and Hispanics.

Clear argues along the same lines citing a body of research that suggests weak casual relationships between crime rates and incarceration rates. The rate of incarceration has climbed for decades despite a decline in the rate of crime. While some theorists may argue that severe sentencing and long terms of incarceration have deterrent effects, the opposite in the case. In fact, Clear argues that mass incarceration increases the recidivism rate. While incarcerating a few people in a community may have a deterrent effect, incarcerating significant numbers weakens the community, not only because it empties communities of their members but because it weakens the respect for the criminal justice system and its agents in the community.

Neither author specifically addresses the issue of the incarceration of women, except to refer to so-called collateral damage due to incarceration. The aim in each book is to create a coherent analysis of the links between crime rates and incarceration and to show the impact of mass incarceration strategies on individuals, communities, and families. However, the implications for women are clear.

Source: http://digitalcommons.salve .edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1049&context=jift

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