Women in Prison

A record number of American women - 75,000 - were serving prison sentences last year, the Justice Department reported recently. The number of women in jail or awaiting mandatory sentences increased 9.1 percent over 1995, the study said. What's behind the influx? Mandatory drug sentences, among other things.

Five years ago, when the debate over mandatory sentencing was beginning to heat up, we worried that the impact of widespread incarceration on black, inner-city communities could be devastating. That's still a very real concern. Not only are women prisoners disproportionately members of minority groups, but most are mothers. Family disintegration, experts say, is one of the greatest dangers of the prison boom.

In some cases, long prison sentences clearly are necessary; in others, they're not. Many women doing time are nonviolent drug offenders who had no criminal records prior to their convictions. States are paying a high price for their incarceration: Women are more expensive to imprison than men, to say nothing of the costs of foster care for their children.

States should reexamine drug-sentencing laws with an eye toward making the punishment fit the crime. As a recent Monitor article pointed out, a few already are doing this. Proposed legislation in New York, for example, would give judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders. In Oklahoma and North Carolina, lawmakers have eased sentences for less-serious drug offenses while making penalties for violent crime more severe. One New York legislator said it's not a question of being tough or soft but how best to use limited resources. She's right.

We hope more states will consider alternatives - combinations of shorter terms, probation, and treatment for some offenders, for example, or halfway houses where they can get treatment and spend time with their children. Long prison terms are not always the best option; they shouldn't be the only one judges have.

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