The “War on Drugs” is a War on Women Women are the fastest-growing population within the prison industrial complex Between 1986 and 1999, the incarceration rate for women in prison for drug offenses grew by 888%. From 1986 (the year mandatory minimum sentencing was enacted) to 1996, the number of women in federal prison for drug crimes increased from 2,400 to 24,000. This unprecedented rise is a direct result of the “war on drugs,” which has been the main factor in the overall increase in the imprisonment of women. Since 1986, the overall number of women in prison increased by 400%. For women of color, the rise is 800%.
The “war on drugs” replaced judicial discretion in sentencing with harsh mandatory minimums and over-policing in poor, predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Policing that targets inner-city neighborhoods as the primary method for addressing the drug problem generates arrests of drug users and small-time dealers, filling the prisons, but does very little to curb the drug trade. In the 1980’s, amid the media frenzy over the “crack epidemic,” women, especially pregnant women and women of color, became the target of punitive law enforcement efforts. Unsupported and misleading information on the consequences of prenatal exposure to cocaine received widespread media coverage and lawmakers began introducing legislative proposals addressing the subject. Since then, eighteen states have amended their civil child welfare laws to specifically address the subject of a woman’s drug use during pregnancy, ranging from an evaluation of parenting ability to the basis for presuming neglect and terminating parental rights and referral to child welfare authorities to prosecution. In some states, including South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, North Dakota and New Hampshire, pregnant women found to be using illicit drugs have been prosecuted as child abusers and sentenced to
up to ten years in jail. In several cases, drug addicts who have given birth to stillborn babies and submitted to a drug test with positive results have been prosecuted for murder. No one wants pregnant women to use drugs, but treating it as a punishable offense will only deter pregnant addicts from seeking pre-natal care or addiction treatment. Women of color, in particular, have been targeted for punishment, as these policies are enforced in a blatantly racist manner. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, a 2001 study concluded that the local public hospital selectively drug tested pregnant women who met the hospital’s criteria to have drug abuse problems, reported positive tests to the police, and had the women arrested (often within minutes of giving birth)and delivered to jail. 29 of the 30 women prosecuted under this policy were black. Women are the least violent segment of the prison population- roughly 85% of women in prison are serving time for nonviolent offenses. The U.S. Government’s response to the global drug trade has been an increase of interdiction efforts and greater presence of border patrol. As a result, drug traffickers have become more calculating in their methods of trafficking. The individuals least likely to be suspected of trafficking are women, particularly women with small children. Although many women are involved in trafficking for the same reasons as their male counterparts, other women are involved because they are unable to find legal or sustainable means to support their families, or are coerced into transporting drugs under threat of violence or death. These women are subject to criminal sanctions that far outweigh their roles in drug trafficking. Many have no previous criminal record. Because the “war on drugs” is fought on low-level drug dealers and drug users instead of the cartels that control the drug trade, women often serve harsher sentences for drug offenses because they cannot provide prosecutors with information to trade for reduced sentencing. Since women, as drug couriers, are often the “mules” in the hierarchal drug trade, they rarely possess information that allows them to benefit from reducing sentencing provisions. Drug addiction must be treated as a health issue, not a legal problem. Many of the women in prison for drug offenses will never recover. They will not have the means to seek treatment for their addictions, recover their children from the state’s custody, or support themselves financially. Their chances of overdose, disease, and homelessness will dramatically increase.
Women and the War on Drugs Fact Sheet.pdfDownload ·