The US Department of Human Service’s Office on Women’s Health recent convened a conference, “Meeting the Reentry Needs of Women: Policies, Programs, and Practices” which highlighted the unique characteristics and challenges facing women with criminal records. While there have been a number similar conference on returning citizens, this was the first to focus on women.
There are over 1 million court-involved women and girls throughout the US. Their characteristics are different than those of their male counterparts. The typical female inmate is a woman of color in her early 30s with 2 young children. Her crime was a non-violent drug-related, public order or property offense. She has a high school education with limited work history. She is also a survivor of sexual and physical violence. To cope with this trauma and victimization, she developed a drug abuse problem. She has poor physical health and suffers from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. These are women who have faced significant adversity throughout their lives. The crimes they commit are often a consequence of these conditions.
Women serve an average of 18 months in prison. While in prison, women often relive their victimization and are traumatized further. Standard procedures require her to be shackled, submit to cavity searches and be isolated from others. Many studies show that women who have committed non-violent crimes and who otherwise could serve their time under community supervision are greatly harmed by incarceration.
When women are released from prison, they find themselves more vulnerable to the negative conditions that led to their crime – economic insecurity, abuse, mental illness – than they were prior to incarceration. Individuals with criminal records are barred from many employment opportunities in a number of fields, banned from receiving public benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or food stamps, permanently stripped of their right to vote, unable to access Pell grants and other federal financial aid, and denied public housing. Individuals with criminal records pay for that crime long past their sentence.
Action must be taken to reduce the factors that often drive these women to commit these non-violent crimes. Public policy and community investment are needed to support the education, health and safety of women. Furthermore, policy changes are needed to break down the barriers that women with criminal records face when they return to the community. WOW has long recognized the employment barriers that returning citizens face. Check out WOW’s Reality Check on promising practices in workforce development for women, girls and ex-offenders. We can do better to help court-involved women lead full and productive lives.