How The Criminal Justice System Is Failing Women

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Last month, a video showing a woman brought to court without either pants or feminine hygiene products went viral.

The incident sparked widespread outrage online. But some experts say it was indicative of a much larger problem.

“It’s a very specific example of how these systems are designed for men,” Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate with the Vera Institute of Justice, told Refinery29 by phone. “Something like that can be completely overlooked.”

Swavola is one of the authors of a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge examining the increasing population — and overlooked needs — of women in jail.

The report found that the number of people in jails, often held pretrial, has increased fivefold since 1970. But for women, that increase has been fourteenfold. More than 100,000 women, two-thirds of whom are women of color, were held in jail in 2014.

The population growth is partly attributable to arrests related to nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses or property offenses, that weren’t prosecuted in the same way several decades ago, according to the report.

But despite the fact that women are the fastest growing correctional population, researchers found that their needs simply aren’t being addressed.

Those needs include awareness of both sexual trauma and mental illness. The report found that 86% of women in jails have experienced sexual violence, with 77% reporting partner violence. Almost a third have serious mental illness, vastly exceeding the same rates for men.

These vulnerabilities can make jail incarceration a more fraught and traumatizing place for women.

“Daily correctional practices such as shackling, or searches, or being held in solitary confinement, [or] being observed by male officers during really private moments, can really trigger a lot of the trauma they bring with them to the justice system,” Swavola said.

Another issue is a lack of financial resources.

The report found that "nearly half of all single Black and Hispanic women have zero or negative net wealth," making it functionally impossible for them to pay the fees and fines associated with the criminal justice system.

According to one example cited by the report, 36% of women who were in jail awaiting trial in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they “could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.” Even when charges are dropped, the financial hole makes it more likely that they will end up back in the system.

Many of the systems set up to help people rehabilitate can make things more difficult for women, because they don’t take into account their specific needs. A single mother on probation, for example, might be faced with an impossible choice if she can’t find child care for the time she is required to go to court or meet a supervision officer. Not meeting the requirements of her release can put her back into the system or add sanctions, putting her on a downward spiral that’s hard to get out of.

The report calls for local jurisdictions to “reserve jail incarceration as a last resort for women who are deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety.” Additionally, it notes that there’s much we don’t know about how to better serve this population, due to a lack of up-to-date information.

“We got a portrait of the women in jails, but there are still questions about why they’re increasingly ending up [there],” said Swavola. “We still don’t have a complete picture.”
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