Photo credit: Florida International University Student Media.

Mass incarceration as a result of the nation’s war on drugs is still viewed as a male issue, even as female incarceration has skyrocketed, UC Irvine Chancellor’s Professor Michele Goodwin told an audience at the School of Law onTuesday.

“The U.S. incarcerates more women than Russia, China, India and Brazil, all together,” Goodwin said at the UCI summit, “Women and Mass Incarceration: The U.S. Crisis of Women and Girls Behind Bars,” which drew law professors, students, authors, scientists and activists.

She added that two thirds of women in prison are non-violent offenders; still, President Obama barely mentioned women in a major speech on mass incarceration earlier this summer.

But they were a key part of the discussion on Tuesday, with panels on women in prison, racial disparities in the legal system, and faulty science used to support harsh criminal penalties for drug use.

22 million

“Twenty two million people are incarcerated in the U.S.,” said UCI School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky at the summit Tuesday. “The number of incarcerated has gone up 500 percent in the last 30 years. It’s gone up because of making things criminal that weren’t previously criminal offenses and for over-punishing minor offenses.”

An example of how this phenomenon particularly affects women is in criminalizing rather than treating drug addiction during pregnancy, experts said on Tuesday.

In some states, the threat of jail time drives women who have drug problems to avoid getting prenatal care for fear that their doctors will turn them into the authorities, which has occurred, according to Indiana University Professor David Orentlicher.

“Prosecutors are sending the message that prenatal care is dangerous,” he said at the summit Tuesday. “If the goal is to promote fetal and child health, prosecuting pregnant women is not the way to do this.”

Orentlicher invoked the case of Martina Greywind, a North Dakota woman who in 1992 faced criminal charges of reckless endangerment for drug use during her 12-week pregnancy. She terminated the pregnancy to avoid the charges.

“The last thing we want to say to a woman is the only way to avoid going to jail is to have an abortion,” he said.

Bad Science

The science of fetal abuse is highly problematic, said researcher and Emory University professor Claire Coles.

That’s because research in the1980s and 90s about “crack babies” was later disproved, and studies are now showing that use of crack or powder cocaine during pregnancy causes few long-term effects on a child’s development, according to Coles. Rather, “It’s the environment” of poverty that causes behavioral and cognitive problems, she said on Tuesday, “not the drug.”

Meanwhile, laws criminalizing use of cocaine during pregnancy have proven devastating to women and children over the years, she said, because they prevented many children from being adopted and caused many women to lose custody of their children. Early “crack baby” research was based on bad observation, lack of understanding of poverty, media sensationalizing and the hunt for research grants, Coles said.

Scientist Carl Hart of Columbia University concurred that scientists studying drug use commonly draw unfounded conclusions from their research, what he called “over interpreting the data.” He said brain imaging in particular is not a conclusive way to measure drugs’ effects, though it’s cited frequently.

Further, he said that some drug use does not require treatment, nor should it result in jail time.

Targeting Communities

The theme of drug penalties hit home with Santa Ana activist Abraham Medina, director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, who attended Tuesday’s summit.

“Police are targeting communities they say are hot spots of drug activity, criminalizing poor communities and not addressing root causes [of poverty],” Medina said.

Virtually all speakers at Tuesday’s summit condemned the nation’s war on drugs and rash of drug laws in response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Jack Cole, a former New Jersey narcotics officer who now runs Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, reviewed a series of statistics that he said showed the futility of the drug war.

He said that in 1970 there were 4 million people who had used illegal drugs, compared to 121 million today – a growth from 2 to 46 percent of the population. Similarly, annual arrests for non-violent drug offenses went from 65,500 in 1970 to the current 1.9 million. Further, drug purity has increased since the drug wars began, as has supply. All these changes were the opposite of what the Nixon Administration promised would be the reward for declaring war on drugs, Cole said.

He called the war on drugs, “the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy in this country since slavery” and said it was driven by “money, power and racism.”

But drug laws are not the only reason women are going to prison in high numbers. Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said women are also being jailed because they can’t pay traffic tickets that have become sources of municipal revenue.

In addition, women who get out of jail are increasingly charged fees to cover costs associated with their public defender, jail stays and restitution. Failure to pay fees can lead to more jail time.

“These user fees in some states are creating additional handcuffs,” Choudhary said. “People come out of jail facing fees, and if they can’t pay, what we see is debtors’ prisons.”

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at

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