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Caption : Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash     

This week, which includes the final days of March and the first days of April, marks both the last week of Women’s History Month and the start of Second Chance Month. In recognition of these intersecting moments, Generation Progress is taking the time to reflect on the disproportionate impact of collateral consequences of our justice and legal system on the lives of young women. Since the 1980s, there’s been a 700 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated in the U.S, which means that the incarceration of women has grown at twice the rate of men during this period. This increase reflects the unique challenges women face in the legal process, strict drug sentencing laws, and aggressive policing and incarceration. The impact of a criminal record on justice-involved individuals extends far beyond the courtroom, creating barriers to housing, education, jobs, and more. These collateral consequences can result in long-lasting setbacks, especially for those who become justice-involved at an earlier age and have much of their lives to build and live. Compounded by race and class, these barriers fall hardest on BIPOC communities and under resourced communities. 

To dig deeper on what is  happening to justice-involved young women, we are highlighting 4 key facts about women in the U.S. criminal legal justice system.

1.  There are 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

As of 2019, 1.2. million women were under supervision of the criminal justice system—either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. BIPOC women are overrepresented in the justice system: Black women are 1.7 times more likely to be imprisoned than white women and Hispanic women are imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women. There is a lack of significant data on the incarceration rate of Indigenous women, but, overall, the local jail incarceration rate of Indigenous Americans is nearly double that of white people.  Although in recent years, we have begun to see a decrease in imprisonment across the country, this decrease has mainly impacted men. 

2.  Women in the justice system are impacted by multiple histories of abuse.

The criminal legal system disproportionately impacts women who have already been impacted by  societal issues such as mental health challenges, poverty, and abuse. According to the ACLU, nearly 60 percent of people in women state prisons across the country, and as many as 94 percent of some women’s prison populations, have a history of physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated. In addition, women are more likely to enter the jail and prison system with a drug dependency or history of abusing drugs than men. Incarcerated women are also more likely than incarcerated men to have experienced serious psychological distress or mental health issues. When it comes to poverty, the Prison Policy initiative found that, prior to their incarceration, incarcerated women had a median income of $13,890 in 2014. This was 42 percent less than non-incarcerated women between the ages of 27 to 42, and 66 percent less than non-incarcerated men. Taking the gender wage gap, racial wage gaps, and LGBTQ+ wage gaps into account,it is not surprising that more than 60% of women are held in jail because they cannot afford bail. The path to and through the legal system for many women is complicated by a multitude societal issues, which  the criminal legal system is not fit to address—ultimately leading to even deeper problems for these individuals and communities. 

3. The criminal justice system is a HUGE barrier to reproductive justice. 

There are a multitude of ways that the criminal legal system prevents the achievement of reproductive justice, which can be defined as every person’s right to have a child, not have a child, and if you choose to have a child, raise that child in a safe and healthy environment

Although incarcerated people are entitled to health care, including reproductive health services such as contraception, abortion and pre-natal care, the prison system presents nuanced barriers both for those seeking to end a pregnancy or to carry a wanted pregnancy to term. Incarcerated women struggle to access reproductive healthcare because of problematic policies and requirements dictated by the prison system that exacerbate existing barriers. For example, access to abortion services varies from state to state due to hundreds of restrictive state laws such as medically unnecessary waiting periods, two trip requirements, bans that prohibit abortions as early as 13 weeks in pregnancy, and targeted regulation of abortion providers that can shutdown or limit the frequency of services. These barriers are magnified by arrest and incarceration, because people can no longer independently decide what is best for their family planning needs. 

Those who wish to proceed with their pregnancies face other problems within the prison system. Pregnant women who are incarcerated are still often shackled during labor and other health care visits, creating health risks for both parent and child and depriving pregnant people of their dignity. In a survey of perinatal nurses who have provided care for incarcerated pregnant people, over 80 percent reported that patients were shackled either sometimes or all the time. 

Beyond pregnancy, women who have children continue to struggle disproportionately within the criminal legal system as parents. In federal prisons, about 48 percent of women under the age of 24 are mothers, and 55 percent of women under the age of 24 in state prisons are mothers. The children of incarcerated mothers tend to experience more instability and disruption than those of incarcerated fathers because women are more likely to be primary caregivers in their families.

Regardless of whether people carry to term, end their pregnancy, or experience a miscarriage, too many justice-involved women are denied essential reproductive healthcare, compromising their self determination and reproductive autonomy.

4. A criminal history impacts women’s economic security and stability.

A criminal history can deny justice-impacted women access to housing, education, employment and more. Most women enter the system already experiencing multiple challenges that become further complicated by collateral consequences. While “reentry,” the process of returning to communities from incarceration, has become a priority among many policymakers and community-based organizations, most reentry resources available do not address the unique challenges that women face. For instance, while all justice-invovled people have to navigate discrimination from employers who are unwilling to hire people with records, women have the added burden of facing significant employment and occupational licensing restrictions in many of the industries that are concentrated with women and women of color like childcare, nursing, and home health care. In addition, some  justice involved women, the majority of whom are parents or primary caretakers of families, can be denied access to public services and benefits. These collateral consequences make women, especially BIPOC women, even more vulnerable and limit their success. 


Young people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and women are uniquely harmed.  We must work to end mass criminalization and mass incarceration, but, in the meantime, there are ways we can mitigate the harms of this system to ensure that women are not uniquely vulnerable to collateral consequences. 

To take action and demand support for policies that will benefit women and all justice-involved people, use this tool to email your legislators today. 

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