Every day, women across California are separated from their families and communities and placed behind bars for committing minor offenses such as shoplifting and drug possession.
Two-thirds of women in state prisons and jails are there for property, drug, and other nonviolent, nonserious crimes. Nearly 80 percent are mothers, many single parents. Four out of every ten women behind bars have been physically or sexually abused as girls or adults. Once released, few get the support they need to get out and stay out—and they end up right back behind bars.
There's a better way. To return home and lead successful lives, they need programs that are specifically designed for women who have experienced abuse and trauma. Evidence shows that alternatives to jail, such as community-based custody programs, can effectively break the cycle of incarceration among women and their families.
Take, for example, what can happen when women are placed in community-based programs such as A New Way of Life in Los Angeles. Here, women maintain their connection to their children while getting the treatment and reentry services they desperately need. They get access to critical support such as stable housing, education, job training, employment, family counseling, child care, parenting education, drug and alcohol treatment, and mental health care.
In these safe, supportive, and supervised environments, women transform. They begin to dream again. They become productive and start taking responsibility. They leave behind lives of addiction. They begin taking care of their children. Instead of going back to prison or jail, they go on to lead new lives, together with their families. They start contributing to their communities. Allowing nonviolent women offenders to pay their debts to society while getting the help they need to lead productive lives reduces crime and benefits all of us.
Unfortunately, California continues to ignore the fact that prisons and jails designed primarily to punish and confine offenders are not effective for the vast majority of women. Rather than using proven strategies such as alternative custody programs to reduce the number of women in prisons and jails, states and counties are resorting to adding jail and prison beds and shuffling women from one facility to another, at tremendous financial cost to taxpayers and human cost to women and their children. At the state level, California is now using one of the largest women's prisons to house men, while shifting women to an overcrowded prison nearby and also opening another 450-bed prison.
We cannot expand our way out of our overcrowding problem. The state must use the solutions we already have in place to bring women home. It can use Senate Bill 1266, an innovative program enacted in 2011 that allows low-risk parents to finish serving their sentences at home or in their communities instead of state prison. Thousands of women are eligible for release to alternative custody programs. But, as of 2012, the state aimed to send only a few hundred back to their communities, and there appears to be no real implementation plan to help women who qualify for early release to access this program. This is a clear lack of leadership. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must act immediately on this important strategy to reduce its prison population.
California also is failing to rethink its approach to incarcerated women at the local level. One policy opportunity that has the potential to dramatically change the way we treat women is Realignment, which shifts custody of people convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, and non-sex-related crimes to counties rather than the state. Women make up a disproportionate number of the people who are being transferred to local control under Realignment, since so few women are incarcerated for serious or violent felonies.
But, only five out of the 58 counties—Alameda, Orange, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Solano—have specifically detailed programming for women in their Realignment plans. Counties must not overlook women, and rather than adding more jail beds, counties can use alternative custody programs, which save money and reduce the number of women who return to prison and jail.
Californians are clear that we should bring women home. In 2012, the Women's Foundation of California and the Rosenberg Foundation commissioned a first-of-its-kind poll of one thousand likely voters, which found that more than two-thirds of voters are in favor of putting tax dollars toward alternative custody programs for nonviolent offenders rather than building more prisons. In overwhelming numbers, voters believe it is important for mothers (89 percent) and parents (92 percent) convicted of nonviolent offenses to maintain contact with their children. Also, nearly 75 percent of voters are less likely to favor putting women convicted of nonviolent offenses behind bars when they hear that a majority of these women are the primary caregivers for their children.
California is at a crossroads when it comes to rethinking its criminal justice system, and our state can lead the way nationally in how to treat and rehabilitate women. Innovation on behalf of women may also provide evidence about appropriate best practices for men, allowing the state to safely reduce its prison and jail populations while prioritizing public safety and saving critical resources.
We can no longer afford the human or financial costs of incarcerating so many women when other, proven ways are available to promote public safety. It costs us $50,000 per year to hold a woman in prison. In comparison, it only costs $15,000 to put a woman through a comprehensive program such as A New Way of Life. We need to help women rebuild their lives, not lock them up behind bars. By doing so, we can make a significant impact on families, communities, and our state.
Susan Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. Judy Patrick is president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California.