Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration: A Hidden Problem

Goodwin-Headshot11Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children.  Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations.  Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast.  While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations:  England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).  The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%.  Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.

Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” Continue reading

Prosecuting Rape Victims, What Next?

Representative Cathrynn Brown (Arizona)

In the wake of an election season peppered with references to rape by legislators vying for reelection or elevation to more prominent political positions: Representative Todd Akin’s woefully unscientific claim that “legitimate” rapes rarely result in pregnancy because women can “shut that whole thing down” or Richard Mourdock, Indiana state treasurer, reminding voters that when pregnancies result from rape “that it is something God intended to happen,” the deeply political intersections of criminal and health law became more visible.  Representative Joe Walsh (Ill), for example, claimed that “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” where a woman’s life can be saved with an abortion.   Problematically, such comments to unwitting constituents parade as fact and stand contrary to vetted medical studies.   For example, a recent study found that “women were about 14 times more likely to die during or after giving birth to a live baby than to die from complications of an abortion.” An abstract of the study can be found here.

Months ago, I wrote that it would be a mistake to isolate these politically-charged comments to republicans or even male legislators; on inspection, recent personhood amendments and the passage of fetal protection laws expose bipartisan collaboration on laws that may be unconstitutional, undermine women’s reproductive health, and prioritize criminal law interventions over healthcare and rehabilitation. More of that work can be found here, here, and here.

Most recently, Representative Cathrynn Brown of New Mexico stepped into the political fray on rape, exposing once more the ways in which women’s reproduction can become hostage to political pandering.  Last week, Brown proposed House Bill 206, a law that would criminally punish rape victims who seek abortions.  According to Brown, obtaining an abortion after sexual victimization amounts to “tampering with evidence.” Rape victims could face felony charges and up to three years in prison for violating the law.

Likely, Brown’s rape bill will not gain sufficient political support for passage.  Nevertheless, recent political efforts to redefine rape, blame victims, and use the criminal law as a sword to regulate victims’ responses to rape deserve serious scrutiny and sustained critical engagement.