The newest victims of the war on drugs are women and if Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske was sincere when he said that the war on drugs is not a war on the people of this country then it is time to evaluate how our policies affect the women of this country.
Since 1977, the rate of female imprisonment has increased by nearly 800% and is still rising.
Much of this increase can be attributed to the war on drugs since, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 40% of criminal convictions leading to incarceration of women at the turn of this century were for drug-related crimes.
Mothers, sisters and daughters are the latest victims of this system that focuses on punishment instead of rehabilitation. The gravity of the economic and social costs for these policies cannot be overstated, especially considering that more than three quarters of women in prison are mothers.
For many mothers, however, incarceration for a drug-related crime results in the termination of parental rights.
Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, states initiate the termination of parental rights proceedings if a child has been placed in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.
According to a study released by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the median prison sentence for women is 60 months, meaning the majority of mothers in prison lose their parental rights. Many of these broken families are a direct result of the war on drugs, as almost three quarters of the women incarcerated in federal prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
Even after a mother is released from prison, she faces reentry challenges such as bans on access to food stamps, public housing, and student aid for individuals with drug convictions. These restrictions inhibit her ability to reintegrate into society, and maintain a stable and nurturing environment for her children.
Women, who are often involved in the drug trade through a domestic partner, are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy laws, which hold a participant in a drug interaction responsible for the full quantity of drugs involved, whether or not the participant physically touched those drugs. In fact, Kemba Smith was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison with no possibility of parole under a conspiracy statute.
Smith found herself in a relationship with Peter Hall, an older man whom, unbeknownst to Smith, was the leader in a crack cocaine ring. She made several unsuccessful attempts to leave Hall, who was physically and emotionally abusive. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing, the court could not consider that Smith may have aided Hall out of fear for her life. In December 2000, President Clinton granted Smith clemency after she had served almost seven years of her sentence.
Many women, like Smith, suffer draconian punishments for superficial involvement in drug conspiracies to the detriment of their families and communities. Smith, who was seven months pregnant at the time of her sentencing, gave birth in prison.
Fortunately Smith's parents were able to raise her child.
According a study issued by the Sentencing Project, 1,706,600 minor children had an incarcerated parent in 2007, and half of these children were under ten years old. One out of every 15 African American children had an incarcerated parent, one in 111 white children.
In fact, having an incarcerated parent is the single greatest determinant of whether or not a child will be incarcerated in her lifetime.
Statistics show that the school to prison pipeline is a reality; many of these children will be incarcerated as juvenile offenders, perpetuating a cycle contact with the criminal justice system.
From 2007 to 2008 the women's prison population grew about three percent while the male population only increased by 1.9%. This disparity proves disturbing given that women usually play a peripheral role in the drug trade.
They are, however, still more likely to serve time for drug offenses than men, particularly if they happen to be African American. According to a study conducted by the PEW Center on the States, 1 out of every 355 white women ages 35-39 in the U.S. is in incarcerated. For African American women, 1 out of 100 is serving time. Rather than an indication of higher drug usage among minorities, this study is a representation of how a system suffering from ingrained racism has broadened its reach to include women as its newest victims.
Pregnant women struggling with addiction also face a multitude of challenges under current drug policies, as childbirth complications can make them vulnerable to extreme legal repercussions. Such was the case for Regina McKnight, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for homicide after experiencing a still-birth, even though it could not be definitively attributed to her cocaine use. Cases such as McKnight's depict a woman struggling with drug dependency as a violent criminal, and dangerously devalue a woman's relationship to her own body.
Women suffer exploitation in the drug war not only from unjust policies, but from drug traffickers as well. According to the U.S. State Department roughly 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, most of these being women sold into the sex trade and drug cartels use their networks to traffic both drugs and women.
Women are also increasingly acting as drug mules since they are less likely than men to draw suspicion, and often are the only members of their families without criminal records.
When one considers the penalties for pregnant drug users and the price women pay for minimal involvement in the drug trade, the War on drugs appears, almost literally, as a war on women's bodies.
Women, their children, and society in general, would benefit from treating drug use, misuse, and abuse as a health issue.
Treatment is more cost-effective and does not necessitate the dissolution of families, unlike our current incarceration craze.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.