The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law today released a report that compiles for the first time existing research on the effects of current drug laws and sentencing policies on women and their families. The report, Caught in the Net: the Impact of Drug Policies on Women & Families, is co-authored by the three organizations and is being launched at a national conference of experts on issues relating to women, families and drugs at NYU School of Law on March 17th and 18th.
"We've gone from being a nation of latchkey kids to a nation of locked-up moms, where women are the invisible prisoners of drug laws, serving hard time for someone else's crime," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Family values ought to mean keeping families together. Treatment can cure drug addiction, but there's no cure for a family destroyed."
The conference will inform the ongoing dialogue among experts about how best to reform drug laws and influence drug policymakers to consider the unique needs of women and their families. More than 150 women and children impacted by drug laws, state and federal judges, health and drug treatment professionals, lawyers, legislative staffers, those working in correctional institutions, researchers and women's rights and drug policy reform activists will attend.
In the wake of Martha Stewart's release from federal prison last week and the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark rulings on sentencing policies in U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. FanFan, the Caught in the Net report highlights the sky-rocketing incarceration rates of women in the United States. The number of women serving time in state prison facilities for drug-related offenses has increased 888 percent since 1986 according to the Sentencing Project, and U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that more than one million women are currently in prison, in jail, or on parole or probation.
In a letter posted on her website prior to her release from Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, Stewart encourages the American people "to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking."
"Women and their children have for too long remained the unseen victims of the drug war. The Caught in the Net report and conference are meant to bring women's experiences into the ongoing debate that lawmakers are having about sentencing reform," said Deborah Small, Executive Director of Break the Chains.
The report and conference feature representative stories of women minimally, peripherally or unknowingly caught up in drug activity who are found "guilty by association" with their husbands and boyfriends involved in the drug trade. Examples in the report illustrate the ways in which expanded liability laws like conspiracy, accomplice liability, constructive possession and asset forfeiture laws unfairly punish women for the actions of others. With little or no information to trade prosecutors, these women serve the longest sentences for the least involvement in drug offenses.
"This country can no longer ignore the devastation of families and communities when record numbers of women and mothers are locked up for drug offenses," said Kirsten Levingston, Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "It's time to promote drug policies that work, to stop wasting money and to use our social systems to help women, not hurt them."