SAN FRANCISCO – A new analysis of California prison data underscores an emerging body of research nationally: Today in California women are disproportionately incarcerated for low-level, petty crimes. A report released today by the Women’s Foundation of California report, Bias Behind Bars: Decreasing Disproportionate Rates of Incarcerated Women in California and Nationwide for Low-Level Offenses, explores the profound ripple effects that incarceration and a felony conviction have on the stability of families and communities.
“This report tells the untold story of women bearing the brunt of excessive penalties for many non-violent crimes,” said Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. “By incarcerating women – often mothers living in poverty – for low-level offenses and labeling them a ‘felon’ for life, our criminal justice system is creating intergenerational damage that is bad for families, taxpayers and for public safety.”
The report comes as Californians prepare to vote in November on Proposition 47, an initiative that would change six non-violent, low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors (e.g., simple drug possession, petty theft and shoplifting, and writing a bad check). Projected savings from reduced prison terms (estimated to be as high as $1.25 billion in the first five years) would be allocated to mental health and drug treatment, K-12 programs, and victims’ services.
“Proposition 47 could not come at a more important time,” said Khan. “This common sense initiative would not only prevent the damaging experience of incarceration for people who can be held accountable in other ways but also removes the stigma of a felony conviction as these women and men try to overcome drug addiction, mental illness, poverty and other challenges.”
The report finds that nationally, but especially in California, women have been incarcerated for non-violent offenses at disproportionate rates compared to men, and that the long-term impacts of a felony conviction also differ between genders.
Over-Incarceration for Non-Violent Offenses Addressed in Proposition 47
The report reveals that, compared to men, women in California are three times more likely to be in prison for forgery or fraud, and twice as likely to be incarcerated for petty theft. And across the county, women are 63% more likely than men to be in prison or jail for simple drug possession. All of these offenses would be punished differently (with alternatives to incarceration) if Proposition 47 passes.
Mothers in Prison
The report explores how the impact of incarceration for women extends beyond the individual to children and families. In the United States, an estimated 1.3 million children have mothers who are incarcerated, and seven out of 10 women in prison are mothers. Of the mothers in U.S. state prisons, 64% lived with their children prior to incarceration compared to 47% of fathers in prison. Additionally, children with incarcerated mothers are more likely to be placed in the foster care system, drop out of school and/or become involved in the criminal justice system.
Higher Barriers with a Felony Conviction
The report also highlights the heightened difficulties women face after release from prison or jail because of a felony conviction. Formerly incarcerated women are less likely to obtain public benefits and find stable housing as they try to rebuild their lives (partially because women are more likely than men to be convicted of drug felonies – a common barrier to public benefits and housing).
Despite the low risk women with criminal records pose to public safety, women have more difficulty than men finding employment after release from jail or prison. A 2001–2006 study of four diverse states found that 61% of men were working post-release compared to only 37% of formerly incarcerated women.
The Relationship Between Trauma, Girls and Incarceration
Many girls in the juvenile justice system (nationwide) have histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. These girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for status offenses, such as truancy or running away from home. Six out of 10 youth arrested as runaways are girls, and many are fleeing abusive homes. Rather than receiving counseling, these girls are typically housed in juvenile facilities, a situation that increases the likelihood they will be incarcerated as adults.
“It is disturbingly clear that girls and women are disproportionately incarcerated for low-level, petty felony crimes in California and throughout the country, with devastating consequences for the lives of the women themselves and their families,” said Khan. “Policymakers must address this serious problem, but Proposition 47 would also make a dramatic difference in the lives of women and families if passed by voters this November 4th.”
Additionally, the report recommends expanding access to alternatives to incarceration for women convicted of non-violent, non-serious offenses; limiting the use of felony convictions for such low-level offenses (to prevent barriers to reentry); and integrating more gender-responsive programming throughout the justice system, so that polices and practices are based on the specific circumstances, risks and needs of women.
To access to the report, visit: /report/bias-behind-bars.