While discussions of mass incarceration often focus exclusively on men, women have been profoundly and uniquely affected by it in recent years. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote a powerful article this week calling for criminal justice reform to address injustices experienced by women, who she called the “hidden victims of mass incarceration.” The former secretary of state noted, “Mass incarceration has torn families apart, impoverished communities, and kept too many Americans from living up to their God-given potential. But mass incarceration’s impact on women and their families has been particularly acute – and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
Although women make up a minority of prisoners, the rate of female incarceration has grown at an alarming speed. In fact, since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased at a rate 50 percent higher than men. Partly attributable to the ‘War on Drugs,’ 24.0 percent of women in state prison are incarcerated for a drug offense, compared to 15.1 percent of male prisoners. And these females are more likely to suffer from drug addiction than men.
Clinton also discussed the “crushing” effect of the criminal justice system on prisoners’ families, the often-forgotten victims of mass incarceration. More than 120,000 mothers are behind bars, and the number of children under age 18 with a mother in prison more than doubled between 1991 and 2007, up 131 percent; the number of children with a father in prison has only grown by 77 percent in this time period. Having a parent behind bars can profoundly affect a child’s life. Research shows that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior in childhood, and some studies suggest these children also face a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and attention problems.
Recognizing the importance of this research, the Justice Department announced — in conjunction with the Obama administration’s reentry week — their intentions to expand video visitation in prison so families can communicate with loved ones behind bars.
It is critical that policymakers and advocacy organizations acknowledge the impact of the criminal justice system on women, and vow to put an end to mass incarceration. Federal and local policymakers must also promote prenatal care, family-friendly visitation environments, and reentry programs that directly involve families. This will not only help the families of incarcerated women, but also public safety at large. Research suggests that former inmates are significantly less likely to reoffend when they report higher levels of emotional support from their families.
Clinton’s comments highlighted that mass incarceration needs to be better understood as a woman’s issue. They also indicate a strong, mainstream interest in reducing mass incarceration. If these sentiments are echoed by her peers, meaningful criminal justice reform may be within reach.