This International Women’s Day, the potential 2020 Presidential contender wants Americans to fix the justice system for women
As part of a series to mark International Women’s Day, Moneyish asked some prominent people to share their thoughts and experiences regarding issues important to females. Read more here.
The United States of America is the incarceration capital of the world — more people are in jail or prison here in the land of the free than anywhere else on Earth. And despite the fact that we are home to less than 5% of the globe’s population, the U.S. is home to 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.
A movement of many — Democrats and Republicans from across the country, from every background and across industries — is coming together to call for changes to our broken criminal justice system. A majority of Americans agree that we need comprehensive reform to the system of injustice that has undermined the ideal of equal justice under the law.
But this movement will fail if we do not insist on reforms to the way women are treated in our country’s broken system of justice. Yet too often, this critical component of our prison population is ignored in the conversation.
America is home to close to one-third of the world’s incarcerated women, the majority of whom are Black and Latina. Women are the single fastest-growing segment of America’s prison population. In fact, since 1980, the female prison population has been increasing at a rate 50% faster than men. And women in prison and jail face uniquely difficult circumstances — they are highly likely to have experienced sexual violence or domestic abuse at some point in their lives, and the majority have children at home under the age of 18.
When I visited a women’s federal prison facility in Danbury, Conn., last year, I remember asking one of the wardens how many women incarcerated in the facility she estimated were survivors of sexual violence and trauma. She had a tough exterior but as soon as I asked that question, her face turned soft and she looked at me and said quietly, but confidently: “About 95 percent.”
The data is clear: According to a Vera Institute report, 86% of women in jail have experienced sexual violence and 77% have experienced partner violence. Yet our system often fails to offer adequate counseling, treatment for trauma, and serious consideration of proactive strategies that could disrupt the sexual abuse to prison pipeline.
We also know that about two-thirds of women in prison are mothers, with a majority having kids younger than 18 years old. But our current system doesn’t take into account the location of a woman’s children when sentencing her to a facility — and this is despite the fact that studies have shown that incarcerated Americans who had prison visits had a 13% lower rate of recidivism.
Mothers in prison are too often assigned years-long sentences thousands of miles from where their children live, with no accommodations for those who were their children’s primary caretakers prior to their incarceration.
One child of a formerly incarcerated woman I met with told me that when the mother is incarcerated, it’s like the entire family is in prison.
This systemic injustice against women, and their families, isn’t making our country safer. It’s not making our communities more stable, or our children better off. This system is a stain of indignity on our nation, on our ideals of liberty and justice for all Americans.
It’s time to make a change.
Thankfully, we’re already seeing what reform can look like at the state and local levels. States are showing that we can reduce incarceration rates and crime rates simultaneously, and we’re seeing what reforms in states like Oregon for women in prison can mean for keeping families connected.
Congress must make federal reform a priority.
That’s why last year I introduced a bill with Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, and Kamala Harris called the Dignity Act. Our bill makes important changes to the way the federal prison system treats women and their families — including requiring the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider the location of children when selecting facilities for incarcerated parents, prohibiting the solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant women, and requiring the BOP to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge to incarcerated women.
We’re already seeing incremental progress. In the weeks after we introduced our bill, the BOP issued a memo requiring all facilities to make feminine hygiene products available for free to all incarcerated women.
Our bill isn’t a panacea — but it’s a critical and necessary step in fixing our broken justice system, and in restoring respect, justice and dignity to the hundreds of thousands of women in this country serving time in prison or jail.
Cory Booker, a Democrat, is a United States senator from New Jersey.
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