Gender inequality isn't limited to wages, it's also alive and well in our justice system

Prison InequalityWith all the news in the past few months stirring up racial hostilities and strong emotions, I cannot help but ponder the racial/ethnic issue from a different but relevant viewpoint. I have long considered myself a feminist, although I suppose feminist women would say I am a feminist-supporter. I always find myself considering issues that women encounter, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Rather than focus on the media events these last few months, I want to bring up what I consider a serious issue of social inequality. It is statistically recognizable that women and minorities experience blatant social inequality in our judicial system, perhaps more so than outside of that system.

I wonder if you are aware that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people in prison or jails, and 4,781,300 people were on probation or parole in 2012, for a total of 6,937,600 people in America under some form of criminal justice supervision. I imagine one may see this as a good thing, but I’m not one of those people. But I’ll leave that rant for another day.

Here I want to talk about two specific (and overlapping) groups of people in those numbers, and I believe it is important to understand the social aspects of the U.S. judicial system. One sociological perspective stresses “just as the social classes differ in opportunities for income and education, so they differ in opportunities for crimes.” I believe the same is true for women and racial minorities when it comes to crimes, and the severity of punishment of those crimes.

As well, I believe women and racial minorities experience obvious, and inexcusable, inequalities compared to whites during their incarceration, as well as subsequently in their lives after confinement, under the supervision of the judicial system, including those on parole and probation.

I don’t want to bore anyone with lots of numbers and statistics, although I think it is imperative that I share just a few to corroborate the accusations of injustice and inequality I am making.

According to The Sentencing Project, in their fact sheet on Incarcerated Women, about 200,000 women were serving sentences in 2012, and more than 1 million were under the supervision of the criminal justice system, which included those on parole and probation. They also state that with the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for women being 1 in 56, it varies significantly with race. It becomes 1 in 19 for African American women, 1 in 46 for Hispanic and 1 in 118 for white women.

The website continues with more statistics, including in 2011, black women were incarcerated at 2.5 times the rate of white women and Hispanic women at 1.4 times the rate of white women. As a study by Sandu and associates asserts “So a Black female offender is more likely to be incarcerated rather than placed on probation, as compared to her White counterpart, and also more likely to be incarcerated as compared to her male counterpart. Both her gender and her race seem to work against her.”

I hope you don’t get bored quite yet. There’s a reason I’m sharing this next set of statistics, and I think it’s important you understand why I think the way I do. Perhaps you might open your mind to seeing it from my perspective for just a few moments.

Data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections by a Special Task Force regarding the characteristics of female prisoners revealed the following:

  • 30% don’t have high school diploma or GED
  • 81% have children
  • 25% are married
  • 71% had been in an abusive relationship
  • 48% had received social assistance
  • 75% were incarcerated for drug and non-violent crimes
  • 50% of the women have history of, or exhibit symptoms of mental illness, twice the rate of men
  • Of those with mental illness, 68.3% were incarcerated for drugs or non-violent crimes

What this suggests to me is that women may require more positive social support before they resort to committing crimes. Over 2/3 were in abusive relationships, and we can imagine that they likely turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with it. Only 1 out of 4 were married, but 4 out of 5 had children. This suggests to me that many unwed mothers trying to support themselves and their children turned to illegal acts to compensate and/or cope.

How about the fact that half of these women have or have had history with mental illness, but where was the critical help for them before they ended up in prison? One paper written about Oklahoma’s drug & alcohol treatment states “Only a small portion of [prevention and treatment] programs serve females… it appears that gender-specific treatment, while potentially beneficial to women in need, is lagging behind.”

Better social support for women is essential in this country. Wages need equalizing, and domestic abuse needs more severe penalties for those men who serve only to demean their women and force them to turn to alternative situations, many times illegal activities, to cope. For women, better educational support, substance abuse support, and enforcement of child support are all critical issues that need addressed.

The judicial system needs an overhaul, and there needs to be more equality in sentencing, not only concerning gender and race, but with social classes, such as the “white collar crimes” with their lenient 6-months sentences, and the poor person’s crime with sentencing of years in prison.

It is clear that we, as a nation, have a further need to improve on gender and racial considerations, and we need to begin bridging the gap of inequality within all of society, including with incarcerated men and women.

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