Timothy P. Silard,Lateefah Simon
If we want to fix California‘s broken criminal justice system, let’s start by changing our approach to incarcerating and rehabilitating women. That is one of the key proposals offered in March by a panel of law enforcement and social justice leaders on California Attorney General Kamala Harris‘ transition team. Here’s why:
California holds the largest number of female prisoners in the country and is home to two of the largest women’s prisons. Focusing on this population, a manageable part of the overall prison population, would have an undeniably big impact.
How we re-enter women into society affects entire families and communities. Roughly three-fourths of the 9,500 women in California’s prisons are mothers – many are single parents. Incarcerated women who are unable to maintain relationships with their children are more likely to become repeat offenders, and children of incarcerated women are far more likely to eventually end up behind bars themselves.
Our current way of doing business makes no fiscal sense. We spend about $52,000 to keep each woman behind bars for one year; the two largest women’s prisons, both in Chowchilla, cost $278 million to operate annually. Annual costs for social services for children of female inmates are estimated at $56 million.
The costs we incur make even less sense as the vast majority of women behind bars today are classified as low-risk and were convicted of nonviolent crimes. In fact, research shows that they are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators; four out of every 10 women behind bars have been physically or sexually abused.
Prisons designed primarily to punish are not effective for female prisoners who are nonviolent, serve short sentences and need gender-specific and trauma-informed services to successfully return home. We can no longer afford the human or financial costs of incarcerating so many women when other, proven ways are available.
We are taking steps in the right direction. A new law signed by the former governor late last year would relocate mothers serving time for nonviolent crimes to secure, community-based programs without posing any threat to society. More than 4,500 women who have never committed a violent, serious or sex-related offense would be eligible. Qualifying women would be closer to their families and would get the tools and support they need to become productive members of society.
We can do more. Three years ago, the state created a master plan for women but has yet to implement much of the design. We can put that plan into action, focusing on effective re-entry when women complete their sentences in prisons and jails, and reforming our approach to sentencing at the front end. We can develop a new set of policies that allow nonviolent female offenders to pay their debt to society while breaking the cycle of incarceration and keeping families together.