Our justice system fails women

By Judge John Creuzot

Women’s Storybook Project (WSP) of Texas is a special program that helps incarcerated mothers read their children bedtime stories from miles away.
Photo courtesy of the Story Book Project

We cannot afford to continue to sit idly by and remain silent as the number of female inmates in Texas jails and prisons grows higher and higher. Between 1980 and 2018, the percentage of women held in state penal institutions has grown by approximately 861 percent. This is wrong, and we must do something to address it.

The number of women incarcerated in Texas is higher than in any other state, according to a report by the highly respected Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Also, the number of men confined in Texas has increased 396 percent in the same time frame. Incarcerating women has a very negative impact on all of us in our society, and its institutions such as churches and schools. Eighty-one percent were mothers — many likely the sole wage earners in their homes — before being institutionalized, and they leave behind children who must be raised by grandparents, or who are placed in state-run institutions or in foster care. Approximately 10,000 women in Texas prisons are mothers, and countless more mothers are currently incarcerated in local jails. 

One of the steps we must take is to identify programs that address the reasons why we have witnessed an increase in the number of female offenders. I believe if we prudently approach the issue, we can reach the hearts and the minds of many women before they become involved in criminal activity.

According to a study conducted by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, nearly half of the female prisoners interviewed had experienced physical or sexual abuse prior to being charged and convicted of crimes. The vast majority, (82 percent), were victims of domestic abuse. The study concluded that the criminal justice system largely ignored the experiences and needs of incarcerated women.

Criminologists report that a myriad of circumstances has contributed to the increased numbers of women who find themselves behind bars. They include untreated mental illness, unemployment, harsh and ill-defined prosecution practices and inadequate educational preparation. Women of color are disproportionally affected by our criminal justice system. For instance, in Texas, African American women comprise about 12 percent of the state’s total population, yet they constitute more than 25 percent of the state’s female prison population.

Anyone with common sense and an element of decency in their soul knows there is something drastically wrong with this situation, which must be addressed. And all of us must get involved to turn this around!

There are some specific things that we can do. We can work with drug abuse professionals and the courts to meet the needs of women with substance abuse problems. We can expand trauma and domestic abuse programs throughout our county, and we can expand the use of drug courts, which have proven to be alternatives to women and others getting more involved in crime.

In essence, we must care more and look at the needs of those among us who, in many instances, have not had good experiences, nor good fortune. We cannot afford to ignore this alarming trend in our society. If we do nothing, it will remain a blight on the souls of us all.

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