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Alternatives to Maternal Incarceration

Twenty-five years ago, the presence of women—especially mothers—was an aberration in the criminal justice system. Approximately two-thirds of all women sentenced in federal court were given probation, and women comprised less than five percent of all prisoners. That was before the war on drugs. Since 1986, following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug laws in the mid 1980s, and its adoption by many states at about the same time, the number of women in prison has risen 400 percent, according to a recent Department of Justice report, "Survey of State Prison Inmates"; for black women, the figure is 800 percent.

Most of these women and mothers who are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses are suffering with substance abuse issues. In federal prison, for example, 87 percent of the women are struggling with issues of drug abuse; they are untreated addicts criminalized for their addiction rather than treated and rehabilitated. Indeed, while there is minimal investment in comprehensive drug treatment for mothers and their children, state and federal funds have substantially expanded the prison industrial complex. Drug addicted mothers are more likely to be afforded access to prison than to comprehensive family treatment.

Yet, in so many ways, these mothers have also been lost in the discourse and policy issues precipitated by the war on drugs and the emergence of the prison industrial complex. The specific condition and needs of incarcerated women are rarely addressed. The language and actual policy recommendations of many criminal justice efforts are gender neutral and consequently disregard or are entirely irrelevant to the explicit needs of imprisoned mothers and their children. There is minimal attention paid to the devastation of family stability, and the desecration of sacred ties between mother and child, when maternal incarceration occurs. Incarcerated mothers require a specific voice and analysis that urges for the end of their systematic incarceration and criminalization.

The Rebecca Project will continue to reform criminal justice policy by advocating for treatment alternatives to incarceration for vulnerable communities, especially mothers convicted of non-violent drug offenses. The treatment alternatives that we advocate for will be therapeutically based, long-term, family treatment programs—as opposed to step down, lock-down programs under the auspices of correctional facilities. Towards that end, we are working with Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) in their introduction of the Family-based Meth Treatment Access Act of 2007, which increase family based treatment for meth and other drugs by $570 million over the next five years.

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