VICKI BEHRENS never liked the looks of the drug dealers who banged on her door, but none were as menacing as the scarred and surly man who muscled his way into her family's apartment late one night.
The dealer came for $1,000 in payment for cocaine used over several weeks by Mrs. Behrens's addicted husband. When Behrens's husband decided to go borrow cocaine from a friend and pay his debt in kind, she insisted that he stay at home to protect her four children from the pusher while she fetched the drug.
Behrens returned to her home with the cocaine and discovered she was right to fear the dealer, but for the wrong reason: He was an undercover policeman.
Now the young children for whom Behrens broke the law are deprived of their mother and father. She is serving a six-year sentence at the state prison in Dixon, Ill. Her husband is serving an eight-year sentence elsewhere.
The Behrens case illustrates one key reason that the number of women in state and federal prisons surged 275 percent between 1980 and the end of last year, a rate far outstripping the 160 percent rise in the number of male inmates during the same period, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Professionals concerned with women criminals - from police, to prison and court officials, to social workers - say that more women are in prison today than a decade ago because state and federal lawmakers since the mid-1980s have enacted mandatory minimum prison sentences for several offenses, particularly for drug-related crimes.
Behrens and a large proportion of other women convicts did not have a criminal record before their conviction. They neither used a weapon nor acted as the chief instigators of their crimes. Such ``less serious offenders'' made up 38 percent of the women and men who were sentenced to a mandatory prison term by a federal court in 1992, according to the US Sentencing Commission.
ONE out of every 8 women inmates was serving time for a drug-related offense in 1983; the proportion had swelled to 1 out of every 3 woman prisoners by 1989, according to government statistics. ``Women today are not doing things any differently than in the past several decades, it's just that the penalties for doing those things have changed so they are incarcerated more,'' says Alethea Camp, correctional program specialist at the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C.
Although legislators have imposed draconian laws to allay growing public concern over the glaring social costs from crime, the penalties are increasingly exacting a high but hidden cost. Like Behrens, 80 percent of women inmates are mothers, according to the Justice Department. As Behrens has found out, the separation severely strains families and brings great anguish to the children of inmates. (Costs of separation, left.)
In its recent debate over a $23 billion package of anticrime laws, the Senate passed up an opportunity to enable federal courts to punish comparatively mild lawbreakers like Behrens in a way that suits their crime and recognizes the needs of their children.
Conservative senators watered down a bill introduced by Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois directing judges to sentence first-time, nonviolent drug offenders under flexible federal sentencing guidelines instead of the harsh mandatory penalties. (More than 90 percent of mandatory sentences imposed by federal courts are for drug-related offenses.)
But cut-and-dried laws are not soley responsible for the increasing female population in US prisons, say professionals connected with law enforcement and prisons. They point to several other causes:
* More women are becoming lawbreakers because of the rising availability of drugs. Indeed, more than 60 percent all crimes committed in the United States are related in some way to narcotics, according to law enforcement officials.
* Also, police and federal agents have stepped up their efforts against narcotics in the past several years, arresting women who otherwise would remain free.
* Moreover, women have grown more assertive and prone to crime because they are freer than every before from traditional social constraints. For instance, they sooner break the law to retaliate against physically abusive men rather than quietly suffer.
``Women are involved to a much greater degree in all kinds of legitimate jobs and professions that they weren't before,'' says Jack O'Malley, the Cook County state's attorney. ``It's not surprising that women are also getting involved in higher percentages of illegal commerce and professions,'' he says.
Still, as in the past, it is not the abuse of opportunity but the lack of opportunity that is a leading cause of crime among women, says Gail Smith, director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers.
Women prisoners are disproportionately members of minority groups. They are often poor, inadequately educated, and addicted to drugs or alcohol. More than half of all female prisoners nationwide were victims of physical abuse, with 36 percent having been sexually abused, according to a 1990 study by the American Correctional Association. ``The women we are seeing in prison are those who have not had the opportunities that feminism was designed to ensure,'' Ms. Smith says.