A Growing Population: The Surge of Women into Texas’ Criminal Justice System

A Growing Population: The Surge of Women into Texas’ Criminal Justice System

To reduce the number of women backfilling Texas prisons and jails as male populations decrease, policy-makers must support front-end investments in smart programs, especially for the large population of women struggling with substance abuse. An astonishing 92% of all voters and 88% of GOP primary voters agree that Texas’ current system is not working for people with drug addiction who continually cycle in and out of jail, never recovering from addition, and putting a strain on law enforcement.

Further, a national survey of crime victims found that the majority of victims prefer more spending on prevention and rehabilitation over lengthy prison sentences. Crime survivors and voters on both sides of the political aisle agree that being smart on crime means addressing the root causes of a person’s criminality, rather than simply warehousing them for lengthy periods of time and releasing them with virtually no supports.

Programs and services that hold women accountable, while helping them heal and allowing them to remain in their communities and with their families, are critical to long-term cost savings in reduced incarceration, as well as to increased public safety. Such programs and services are important for women at risk of entering the justice system, women already on probation who want to live successfully in the community, and women on parole who seek to avoid re-incarceration.

1: Invest in Community-Level Supports that Account for Extensive Trauma Histories

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed has specific components: (a) it realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands the potential paths for recovery; (b) it recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; (c) it responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and (d) it seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

The Christi Center in Austin, Texas, is an example of a trauma-informed service; it offers “hope after the death of a loved one by providing support networks, community education, and therapeutic activities that are free, peer-based, and ongoing.” Another example of trauma-informed services are trauma recovery centers, developed at the University of California, San Francisco, and now extending across the country: “This breakthrough and evidence-based model is helping the hardest-to-reach survivors of violent crime heal and recover from the effects of trauma.”

Texas needs more programs like these to serve a broader range of women in need of trauma recovery and healing services. By facilitating recovery within communities, women can remain with their families and support groups before challenges escalate to criminal justice system involvement.

2: Utilize Pretrial Diversion to Hold Women Accountable While Preventing Them from Escalating Deeper into the Justice System

Diversion programs provide a safe, proven opportunity to address underlying trauma and behavioral issues through behavioral health, substance abuse, and other treatment programming, rather than through incarceration.

A woman’s diversion from incarceration is especially critical for her dependent children. No matter how effective in-prison programming may be, no baby benefits from being born in a correctional facility, nor do children benefit from having an incarcerated mother. Legislators should seek to minimize the number of pregnant women serving time in Texas prisons. Alternatives to incarceration should especially be utilized to the greatest extent possible for pregnant women in the months leading up to and immediately after birth. According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice (IWCJ):

Community-based residential parenting programs can prevent mother-child separation while allowing mothers to address the issues that contributed to their criminal justice involvement in a real-world setting. These programs allow mothers to practice positive responses to the challenges of parenting and the challenges of everyday life. These programs also keep children out of foster care and provide children the stability of a consistent primary caregiver.

In 2015, Oregon began a pilot diversion program aimed at prioritizing probation over incarceration for individuals with nonviolent offenses who have primary custody of a minor child, in efforts to reduce the traumatic effects of parental incarceration on a child and other family members. The program, known as the Family Sentencing Alternative Program (FSAP), provides wraparound treatment and services to address the underlying causes of the parent’s criminality. In 2017, Oregon extended the program to include pregnant women. Supporters said this has allowed Oregon to avoid spending $17 million to construct a new detention facility for women. Although new, the program has seen impressively low recidivism among participants and, since it went into effect in January 2016, more than 75 individuals had participated in the program, accounting for 139 children who would otherwise have gone into the foster care system.

Another method for diverting women from the justice system involves pre-booking diversion programs, like the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program based out of Seattle, Washington. LEAD allows officers to immediately redirect individuals with low-level drug or prostitution offenses into community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.

Additionally, restorative justice programs allow for healing alongside accountability. These more individualized, nuanced criminal justice responses are centered around the root causes of a person’s criminality and can be incredibly transformative for the people who participate.

Texas should reinvest dollars that would be spent on incarceration into programs and services that help women address their root causes of criminality, holding them accountable while preventing their further involvement in the justice system.

3: Provide Specialized Treatment Options for Women on Probation

While prevention and diversion programs are preferable to justice system involvement, especially for low-level offenses, many women in Texas are placed on probation. To best help women on probation live successfully and productively in the community, Texas should strengthen the ability of probation departments to provide specialized treatment options – especially for women diagnosed with drug addiction or mental health issues. Additionally, women in community supervision programs should be provided a supportive environment created through site selection, staff selection, program development, content, and material that both reflects an understanding of the realities of women’s lives and addresses the issues of the women participants.

Women on probation should also have access to tools that help them address past trauma. According to the National GAINS Center for People with Co-Occurring Disorders in the Justice System, “Women with trauma histories are encouraged to develop skills needed to recover from traumatic experiences and build healthy lives. These may include cognitive, problem-solving, relaxation, stress coping, relapse prevention and short- or long-term safety planning skills.” Legislators should work with their probation leaders and local service providers to develop programs similar to those for system-involved veterans, which are based on the notion that people suffering from post-traumatic stress should be processed through a system that is cognizant of and not counterproductive to their mental health and/or substance abuse needs. To a very real extent, battered and abused women who themselves commit crimes and become entangled in the justice system have special mental health needs (including post-traumatic stress); they seem particularly likely to benefit from stronger, evidence-based supervision methods.

To ensure that the largest number of women possible can take advantage of appropriate, specialized programming, probation departments should administer a gender-specific assessment to identify women’s particular needs. Where necessary, women’s programming should include education and job placement services, wrap-around services, and childcare. This is one of the least expensive options to support a growing population of system-involved women.

4: Reform the Bail System to Stop Punishing Poverty

According to a 2016 study that examined the impact of cash bail on indigent and non-indigent defendants, “Texas’ resource-based bail system keeps low-risk individuals unnecessarily detained before trial and allows risky defendants to buy their freedom with limited oversight. This practice undermines public safety, disproportionately harms low-income defendants, and costs counties millions of dollars every year. By adopting bail reform in line with national standards, Texas can reduce its jail population while making communities safer.

Resource-based bail systems are particularly problematic for justice system-involved women, who frequently live in poverty. Without the use of a true risk assessment that measures non-monetary factors (e.g., risk of re-offending or failing to appear at trial), women can spend weeks or months behind bars before trial, simply because they cannot afford the high cost of their monetary bond.

As of December 2017, pretrial detainees – numbering nearly 41,000 – made up 64% of Texas’ county jail population, with 5,637 people charged with a misdemeanor. At an average cost of $58 per person per day, this misdemeanant population costs taxpayers approximately $327,000 per day – over $119 million per year.

Not only do cash-based bail systems pose constitutional concerns, potentially resulting in costly liability for Texas jurisdictions, but high rates of pretrial detention squander public resources that could be better used to address substance abuse, mental health, or other issues within the community.

When mothers languish in jail on low-level and misdemeanor offenses, families and communities suffer. The costs are devastating, as women often lose their jobs, housing, or even children. More alarming, “some women, like Sandra Bland, have lost their lives. And the cost to the children they nurture, the partners they love, and the communities they hold is incalculable.”

Adopting risk assessment tools that more accurately measure a person’s risk to the community, as opposed to resource-based assessments that discriminate against low-income women, could alleviate the costly strain on county jails, along with an increased and safe use of personal bonds and a presumption of pretrial release for low-risk individuals.

5: More Effectively Address the Needs of Women with Drug Offenses

Of all women incarcerated in TDCJ, nearly 30% (3,600 women) are incarcerated for a drug offense, and the average sentence length for women with a drug offense is 9 years – which comes with the price tag of $202,455 per woman. A quarter of women on probation (more than 16,000) were charged with a controlled substance offense, while 42% of women on parole (nearly 4,000) are there for drug possession or delivery charges. It is critical to ensure that women have the tools to safely manage addiction issues and live productive lives in the community.

Sadly, the rise in opioid use has contributed to women’s system involvement. Women are more likely than men to suffer from more than one chronic pain condition, and studies have shown that women experience more intense and frequent pain than their male counterparts. Women are more likely than men to be treated with prescription pain medication, such as opioids, at higher doses and for longer periods than men. As a result, women have become dependent on opioids at nearly twice the rate as men.

Separately, many women have extensive trauma histories and may self-medicate through illegal drug use.

Furthermore, although designed to target members of illicit drug organizations, conspiracy and accomplice laws are some of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s harsh treatment of women: “Activities such as living where drugs are sold, being present during a drug sale, or counting money are considered part of a drug trafficking conspiracy, and are therefore eligible for harsh mandatory minimums.” But in reality, women’s choices are restrained as a result of familial and/or financial circumstances. According to a recent study, “Women will often remain in relationships with men involved with drugs because of the fear of assault, unequal power dynamic, relationship dependency, and a commitment to keeping the family together, even if it puts her at a heightened risk of prosecution and incarceration.”

The Texas Legislature must acknowledge that traditional interventions to deal with illegal drug use are ineffective. 62% of people who are incarcerated for drug possession are rearrested within three years. And drug courts and probation – while better than incarceration – can be unrealistic options for many defendants because of homelessness, employment instability, poverty, mental health issues, and other challenges. As such, funding from the state must be geared towards front-end interventions that are far more effective, such as the pre-booking LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program mentioned above, or other pretrial interventions that link people with services following an arrest.

Lastly, because the vast majority of women who come into the contact with Texas’ criminal justice system are mothers, it is especially important that Texas help these women address the underlying causes of their criminality through behavioral health, substance abuse, or other treatment programming, rather than through incarceration. The incarceration of a parent is destabilizing and traumatic. It is critical that women be able to remain in their communities where they can continue caring for their children while learning tools for personal responsibility.

It is critical to address the drivers of women into incarceration — especially substance abuse, mental health issues, past victimization, and poverty. Doing so will stop cycle of reoffending and re-incarceration that comes at great expense to taxpayers, families, and communities. Similarly, it is vitally important to treat incarcerated women with dignity and to prepare them for a safe, successful reentry.

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