NEW YORK - America's war on drugs is inflicting deep and disproportionate harm
on women — most of them mothers — who are filling prisons in ever-rising
numbers despite their typically minor roles in drug rings, the American Civil
Liberties Union and two other groups contend in a major new report.
The report, "Caught in the Net," is being released Thursday as the
focus of a two-day national conference in New York, bringing together criminal
justice officials, sentence-reform activists and other experts to consider its
package of proposed legislative and policy changes. The report recommends expansion
of treatment programs geared toward women, says incarceration should be a last
resort, and urges more vigorous efforts to maintain ties between imprisoned
mothers and their children.
"Drug convictions have caused the number of women behind bars to explode,
leaving in the rubble displaced children and overburdened families," the
The number of imprisoned women is increasing at a much faster rate than the
number of men, mostly because of tougher drug laws. There were 101,000 women
in state and federal prisons in 2003, an eight-fold increase since 1980; roughly
one-third were drug offenders, compared to about one-fifth of male inmates.
"Many of the drug conspiracy and accomplice laws were created to go after
the kingpins," said the ACLU women's rights project director, Lenora Lapidus,
a lead author of the report. "But women who may simply be a girlfriend
or wife are getting caught in the web as well, and sent to prison for very long
times when all they may have done is answer the telephone."
Lapidus acknowledged that legislation addressing the situation would probably
need to be gender-neutral. But she and her fellow authors — from New York
University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice and the advocacy group Break
the Chains — make a detailed case that existing drug laws "have had
specific, devastating and disparate effects on women."
Among their contentions:
_Many women are ensnared in drug investigations despite peripheral involvement,
sometimes solely because they failed to turn in their partners to police. Sentencing
laws fail to consider factors such as physical abuse or economic dependence
that may draw women into drug abuse or deter them from notifying authorities
of a partner's drug activity.
_Treatment programs, to the extent they exist, often are tailored for men and
prove relatively ineffective for women.
_Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned for drug offenses at higher rates than
white women even though their rates of illegal drug use are comparable. Factors
include prosecutors' decisions, policing tactics and selective testing of pregnant
minority women for drug use.
_Most imprisoned women, and relatively few imprisoned men, leave behind children
for whom they were the sole primary caretaker. The separation can be shattering
for mothers, who may lose parental rights, and for children, thousands of whom
are placed in foster care at state expense.
The report makes an economic case for change, contending that the combined annual
cost of imprisoning a mother and placing a child in foster care is seven times
the cost of an intensive one-year drug treatment program.
Several mothers jailed for drug offenses are attending the conference, including
Dorothy Gaines, whose 19-year prison sentence for cocaine conspiracy was commuted
by President Clinton in 2000 after she served six years. Gaines says her son,
Phillip, now 20, was devastated by the separation.
"He was an honor roll student, but when I went to prison, he just lost
it," Gaines said in a telephone interview from Alabama. "Even when
I finally came home, he tried to kill himself. He's still bearing the scars."
The issues raised in the report are difficult ones for criminal justice officials
as their states debate building new prisons or diverting more nonviolent drug
offenders into treatment.
"When there's a woman defendant with children, we generally try everything
we can to put her into rehab rather than prison," said Michael Arcuri,
district attorney in New York's Oneida County and former president of the state
"On the other hand, we're supposed to treat everyone the same,"
he said. "You see more women in prison because you see more women selling
drugs. Some of them feel that, because we were softer on women in the past,
they'll get some sort of easier treatment."
Bruce Bullington, a Florida State University criminologist, said drug-offending
mothers may win sympathy from some activists but often are viewed harshly by
"It's not just an issue of drugs, but of embedded moral values,"
he said. "We demonize these women, and it comes back to haunt us in a variety