December 29, 2003 - The New York Times

Women Find a New Arena for Equality: Prison

By Fox Butterfield

Becky Pemberton, a nurse, is serving a 35-year sentence at the Mabel Bassett women's prison here for grabbing money out of cash registers in stores in Oklahoma City while she was addicted to heroin. She did not have a weapon. But the way Ms. Pemberton figures it, she was lucky in her sentence. The prosecutor originally offered her a plea agreement of 100 years.

Ms. Pemberton, 48, is representative of a nationwide trend that state officials, law enforcement authorities and criminologists are struggling to understand: a rapid growth in the number of women being arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

Nowhere has there been more attention focused on that trend than in Oklahoma, where the incarceration rate for women is more than double the national average. The Legislature set up a task force this year to learn why.

Nationally, from 1993 through 2002, while overall crime was falling, the number of women arrested rose 14.1 percent, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. In the same period, the number of men arrested fell 5.9 percent.

Some individual crimes show even more striking disparities. While the number of men arrested on charges of aggravated assault fell 12.3 percent in the decade, the number of women arrested on the same charge rose 24.9 percent. Drug arrests rose 34.5 percent for men in this period, 50 percent for women. And the number of women arrested on embezzlement charges increased 80.5 percent, actually surpassing the number of men arrested on the same charges, the only crime for which that is true.

Similarly, from 1990 through 2002, the number of women in state and federal prisons jumped 121 percent, to 97,491 from 44,065, said Allen J. Beck, the chief prison demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By comparison, the number of men in state and federal prisons rose 84 percent in that period, to 1,343,164 from 729,840.

In part, experts agree, the phenomenon is a statistical quirk. Because the number of women in prison has been so much smaller than the number of men, any increase translates into a larger percentage gain. But some experts say the numbers also mean that something else is going on.

For one thing, said Freda Adler, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, "with women taking on the social roles of men, they have the same opportunities to commit crime," especially property crimes like embezzlement. And as time passes, Ms. Adler said, women are committing more serious crimes and have longer criminal records, like male criminals. This means they are more likely to be sent to prison and given longer sentences if they are arrested.

"The police, prosecutors and judges can't just look aside anymore and say they are women," said Ms. Adler, whose book "Sisters in Crime," published in 1975, was widely attacked by other scholars as antifeminist.

Even today, some other experts disagree with her. Angela Browne, a psychologist and assistant director of the Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, said there was no evidence that women had become more violent. In fact, she said, the number of murders committed by women has fallen since 1980.

The reason for the big increase in the number of women arrested on charges of aggravated assault, Ms. Browne said, is that with the push to curb domestic violence, the police are now often required by law to arrest the woman as well as the man when there is a report of a fight between partners.

"As a society, we are responding to behaviors differently than we did 10 or 15 years ago," she said. "It's an ironic result of an effort to protect women."

What is driving the increase in the number of women in prison, both in Oklahoma and nationally, is the growing number of convictions for drug and property offenses. Nationally, in 2000, 40 percent of court convictions leading to prison for women were for drug crimes and 34 percent were for property crimes, Mr. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics said.

Only 18 percent were for violent crimes and 7 percent for crimes known as public order offenses, including drunken driving, liquor law violations, disorderly conduct and vagrancy.

Why the number of women arrested for drug violations has climbed so sharply is not well understood, said Beth Richie, a professor of criminal justice and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But, Ms. Richie said, there is strong evidence that more women going to prison are addicted to drugs than male inmates, and some drugs, including crack and methamphetamine, may have a more powerful affect on women.

Women have also had much greater increases than men for all public order offenses over the decade, said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

"These are types of behavior where people are hanging out on the street, and they do suggest some changes in women's behavior," Mr. Rosenfeld said. Nowhere has there been more attention focused on the growing number of omen in prison than in Oklahoma, where the Legislature set up a task force this year headed by the lieutenant governor, Mary Fallin, to study why Oklahoma incarcerates women at a faster rate than any other state.

In fact, K. C. Moon, the director of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center, a research agency under the Legislature, said Oklahoma, with 2,336 women in prison, had a female incarceration rate of 131 per 100,000, more than double the national average of 60 per 100,000.

Mr. Moon, who is helping the task force, said the basic reason Oklahoma incarcerated women at such a high rate "is that women are convicted more for low-level drug and property crimes than men are, and the Oklahoma criminal justice system seems to send those people to prison more than in other states."

"It is Oklahoma's attitude toward those types of crimes and a thirst for vengeance," Mr. Moon said. "We are a Bible Belt state living in the Old Testament."

Ms. Pemberton, in the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, 25 miles east of Oklahoma City, echoed that view. "Women get these really long sentences because everything here is straight out of the Old Testament," she said. "I think you can't bring the New Testament over the state line."

When she was arrested and charged with robbery for stealing money out of cash registers in six stores over three days, the prosecutor initially made her an offer of 100 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea.

"When they told me that, I said I would go to trial, because I have never hurt anyone physically in my life," Ms. Pemberton said. "But they have a way of wearing you down. I sat in the county jail for three months, and you're lucky to get three showers a week."

"It's assembly-line justice," Ms. Pemberton said. "They want to get it over as fast as they can without the expense of a trial."

Women in Oklahoma accept plea-bargains 99 percent of the time, state figures show. And Ms. Pemberton eventually agreed to a 35-year sentence. There are several other reasons for Oklahoma's high rate of incarcerating women, the task force has found. The state's arrest rate for women is 62 percent higher than the national average, and its drug-crime arrest rate for women is 116 percent above the national average.

Moreover, Oklahoma spends only half the national average on drug treatment, meaning women addicted to drugs have little chance of getting treatment. In addition, the county jails in Oklahoma are considered so overcrowded and in such poor shape that judges tend to convict women as felons and sentence them to terms of more than one year to make sure they get into a prison, rather than giving them shorter terms that would send them to a jail, Lieutenant Governor Fallin said.

Ms. Fallin, a Republican, said that despite the state's disproportionate female incarceration rate, "we don't apologize for being tough on crime."

The increase in women being sent to prison has a greater impact than the numbers by themselves suggest, experts said. "When you arrest a woman, you are also disrupting the lives of her children," said Ann Jacobs, executive director of the Women's Prison Association, a New York organization that helps female inmates and their families. A large majority of women sent to prison have children, and they are often sole care givers, so the children must be farmed out to a grandparent or placed in foster care, Ms. Jacobs said.

Mr. Moon said he found that when the expenses of placing the children of incarcerated mothers in foster care are added, it costs the state 31 percent more to imprison a woman than a man.

At the Mabel Bassett prison, Carla Register is serving a 20-year sentence. She was stopped by the police, and drug-making ingredients were found in her car. It was the third drug conviction for Ms. Register, 41. She says she would like to get drug treatment, but because Oklahoma spends only 1 percent of its prison budget on treatment there is virtually none at Mabel Bassett. Besides, she is not eligible for treatment until a few months before her release.

Melissa Schrick, 35, represents another kind of female offender-the clever forger or embezzler. On her personal computer, Ms. Schrick created seven paychecks, which she cashed. She received a sentence of eight years, plus three years in federal prison, because some of the checks were for more than 10,000, the threshold for a federal crime.

"If I didn't accept the eight years, the prosecutor told me they would give me seven years on each check," Ms. Schrick said. "I sat in jail for seven months before I accepted the plea deal."

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