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Women, Prison, and Children

According to the Women in Prison Project, at year-end 2002, an estimated 1,040,000 women were in criminal justice custody, either in prison or jail, or on parole or probation in the United States. The majority of these women were incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as drug-related offenses (almost 80% in 1999), prostitution, or property offenses including larceny, burglary and fraud. In fact, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, although men still outnumber women in arrests for drug related crimes, women represent the fastest growing population of people being imprisoned for drug offenses. They reported in March 2000 that "since 1986 the number of women in prison has increased 400%. For women of color the rise is 800%."

The growth of the prison system since 1991 has dramatically impacted the lives of millions of children. In 1999, U.S. prisons held the parents of about 1.5 million children, an increase of over 500,000 since 1991.

Signed into law by President Clinton on November 19, 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 was enacted by Congress in an attempt to correct problems that were inherent in the foster care system that deterred the adoption of children with special needs. Another goal of the act was to prevent children from languishing in foster care. However, some legal activists and policy experts point to unintended consequences of the act that can negatively affect parents serving time in prison. Under ASFA, if a child is in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, the ASFA requires states to terminate parental rights and find an adoptive family. After parental rights are terminated, parents have no legal relationship with their children, and are not permitted to have any contact with them.

Women in Prison Project reports that on average, mothers are expected to serve 49 months in state prison and 66 months in federal prison, well over the 15-month limit for retaining custody of a child who has been turned over to foster care. As a result, parents who cannot arrange for family members to care for their children while they are in prison are often barred from ever seeing those children again.

Statistics on Women, Prison, and Families

A 1999 special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported the results of comprehensive surveys of women in state prisons. The report, "Women Offenders," described women inmates across the United States, the circumstances of their offenses, and personal backgrounds. In 2000, the BJS issued a report on "Incarcerated Parents and Their Children," addressing the family relationships of prisoners on both the state and federal levels. Highlights from both of these important studies are below.

From "Women Offenders," Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, December 1999

  • In 1998, an estimated 950,000 women were under the care, custody, or control of correctional agencies — probation or parole agencies supervising 85% of these offenders in the community. The total equals a rate of about 1 woman involved with the criminal justice system for every 109 adult women in the U.S. population.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 women in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past; just over a third of imprisoned women had been abused by an intimate in the past; and just under a quarter reported prior abuse by a family member.
  • In 1998 there were an estimated 3.2 million arrests of women — accounting for about 22% of all arrests that year. The per capita rate of arrest among juvenile females was nearly twice the adult female rate.
  • Since 1990 the number of female defendants convicted of felonies in state courts has grown at more than 2 times the rate of increase in male defendants.

From "Incarcerated Parents and Their Children," Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, August 2000

  • In 1999, a majority of state (55%) and federal (63%) prisoners reported having a child under the age of 18; in total, an estimated 336,000 U.S. households with minor children were affected by the imprisonment of a resident parent.
  • Of the nation's 72 million minor children, 2.1% had a parent in state or federal prison in 1999. 22% of all children with a parent in prison were under 5 years old.
  • About 90% of fathers in state prison said that at least one of their children now lived with their mother; 28% of mothers said the father was the child's current caregiver.
  • Ten percent of mothers and 2% of fathers in state prison reported a child now living in a foster home or agency.
  • About 64% of mothers in state prison and 84% of those in federal prison reported living with their minor children prior to admission, compared to 44% and 55% of fathers, respectively.
  • Mothers in state prison most often identified the child's grandparent (53%) or other relatives (26%) as the current caregiver.
  • Mothers (46% of state, 51% of federal) were more likely than fathers (15% of state, 14% of federal) to have been the only parent living with the children in the month before their arrest. Thirty-one percent of mothers in prison had been living alone with their children, compared to 4% of fathers.

Read more from NOW on Prisons in America, Rebuilding Lives after imprisonment, and Truth and Lies in the war on drugs in Tulia, Texas.

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Drug Policy Alliance; Legal Services for Prisoners with Children; Women in Prison Project

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