Women Ignored in Incarceration Reform, says New York Panel

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Women are the fastest-growing population in U.S. jails, but the effect this has on families has been largely ignored, a New York conference was told Oct. 17.

Implementing long-term, meaningful solutions for women and families remain too few and far between, experts said at a three-person panel unveiling a new initiative aimed at reforming criminal justice system to better serve women.

“The damage this system does to the individual, it also does to their family,” said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, a New York-based nonprofit. “The damage it does to the family, it also does to the community—and the damage it does to that community, it does to our society as well.”

The panel, organized by The New York Women’s Foundation, was held to launch the foundation’s Justice Initiative & Collaborative Fund, a seven-year initiative to that focuses on ameliorating the effects of incarceration on women and families in the New York City.

In 2016, Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challengereleased a report that found the number of women in local jails in the United States was almost 14 times what it was in the 1970s—a far higher growth rate than for men.

Female incarceration rates have increased, even as crime rates declined nationwide.

In the U.S., about 80 percent of women in jail are mothers with young children, and many are single moms. Eighty-two percent of women in jails suffer from alcohol or drug addiction, and many of them are poor and struggle with mental health issues, the Vera report found.

They are often jailed and charged with minor offenses and have not been convicted.

Many incarcerated women are from rural communities, and researchers are beginning to explore solutions. This week, the Urban Institute released a study examining a pilot project in Tennessee that aims to address the particular needs of incarcerated women from rural communities.

In New York, through the Justice Initiative & Collaborative Fund, The New York Women’s Foundation plans to invest in community-based  programs that include alternatives to incarceration for women and assistance to the families of jailed women, in collaboration with other foundations, nonprofit groups, and representatives from government, the private sector, and academia.

One key focus will be racial disparities in New York’s justice system that have landed a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic women behind bars.

Another priority is expediting women’s removal from Rikers Island—the city’s main jail complex that has earned a national reputation for neglect and abuse of incarcerated people—and investing in more humane and safe alternatives that promote justice.

Jonathan Lippman, a former Chief Judge of New York and the head of a commission that recommended the closure of Rikers, announced his support for the initiative at Wednesday’s event.

“Women don’t belong (in Rikers Island),” he said. “The vast majority there are nonviolent, and there are definitely better places for them to be than in that miserable facility.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that the jail could be closed by 2027.

Lippman chaired the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which was established to examine the future of the Rikers facility in the context of systemic criminal justice reform.

Earlier this year, the Commission released an updated report, recommending that the facility be shut down sooner than 2027.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR new intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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