A bill sitting on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk would require lawmakers to consider a “racial impact statement” before passing any legislation related to criminal justice. New Jersey wants to avoid any policy that might extend the disproportionate effect of incarceration on people of color.
Examining race in incarceration is important but it’s not the growing crisis people make it out to be. The rates of incarceration for white and Hispanic man were relatively stable between 2001 and 2013; the rate for black men went down. Women are the fastest growing correctional population in the country; rather than a racial one, a gender impact statement would better frame necessary justice reform in New Jersey.
Approximately 200,000 women are incarcerated across the country. A recent study from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that the female jail population of women has grown 14 times since 1970. The female prison population continues to expand at twice the rate of men.
The demographic whose imprisonment rates are skyrocketing isn’t women of color. At the end of 2015, white women outnumbered black women in prison at a rate of 2.5 to 1.
Chandra Bozelko, author of “Up the River: An Anthology” and writer of a blog called Prison Diaries, explains:
Despite this growth around the country, New Jersey has been successful in reducing the number of women in prison. The female prisoner population dropped 10.9 percent between 2014-15.
As someone who served more than six years in a women’s prison and saw what drives female incarceration, I know that New Jersey’s progress can be easily reversed unless it understands what might be the best predictor of women’s eventual involvement with the criminal justice system: sexual abuse.
Eighty-six percent of jailed women surveyed in the Vera Institute study reported a history of sexual victimization.
Sexual abuse is a better predictor than the usual suspects for causing incarceration: better than race — 64 percent — than socioeconomic status, as measured through employment — 60 percent — than educational attainment, having a high school diploma — 37 percent — the usual co-conspirators who take women down.
Notably, New Jersey has never undertaken a study of the abuse history of its female prisoners. If it had, then Gov. Chris Christie might have rethought his December veto of the bill passed by both chambers of the Legislature that would have eliminated solitary confinement for vulnerable populations. Solitary confinement has been linked with increased rates of recidivism or, in essence, more new crime, and exacerbated mental illness, a condition experienced disproportionately by women behind bars.
Seven and a half percent of female prisoners in the Garden State are held in solitary confinement, compared with 6.9 percent for all prisoners in the state. A 2014 study from the ACLU found that women — particularly women who experienced sexual abuse — are uniquely harmed by being held in segregation and their risk for recidivism is enhanced.
Because the female prison population in New Jersey is small — 646 women — even big changes in percentage amount to relatively small numbers of people. All it takes is 64 women to reoffend and return to custody to undo all the progress that has been made in decarcerating them.
Had Christie applied a gender impact analysis to the solitary confinement bill, he probably would have signed it — and not threatened the reforms that he has brought about in criminal justice in the state of New Jersey.
Monitoring race in criminal justice and corrections is important and Christie should make the racial impact statement requirement law. But his recent innovations — eliminating pretrial detention for certain offenders, expanding the use of drug courts — have put New Jersey in a unique position among states and changed its correctional demographics. Proposed bills of any type should be examined to see if they might affect the conditions and growth of women in prison.
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford