Mass incarceration has dominated discussions surrounding policing and prison reform for several years. With just 5% of the global population, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and holds nearly a quarter of all the world’s prisoners. Mostly, the conversations about mass incarceration have focused on reducing the number of male prisoners doing time for nonviolent offenses. Little thought is given to incarcerated women. Times are changing, however, and there is an increasing wealth of information regarding female prisoners that can guide reforms.
One of the most stunning facts about incarcerated women in the United States is that the majority of them are mothers who have survived domestic abuse. Mainly, women are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Most are women of color. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 86% are victims of sexual violence.
The Rate of Female Prisoners Increases
The Vera Institute Report shows us that women’s incarceration in jails has increased 14-fold since 1970. To put this number into perspective, consider this: there were fewer than 8,000 incarcerated women back then while today there are nearly 110,000 women in jail. This figure accounts for about half of all incarcerated women in the U.S. since 2016 when the report was released.
Although not much data exist to show us why so many more women end up in jail, there is general information that shows us that incarcerated women are disproportionately low-income people of color, like the majority of men in jails. They are survivors of abuse and trauma, and have a high rate of physical and mental illness and substance abuse.
Women Who Protect Themselves Serve Harsh Sentences
One of the most upsetting facts about women in prison is that many are behind bars for long periods for killing their abusers. In fact, of all the women in prison for killing a man, 90% of them killed a domestic partner. Although women commit murder much less frequently than men, they typically receive much longer sentences.
On average, women who kill a domestic partner receive a 15-year term while men serve just 2-6 years for killing their female partners. Most women who kill their partners act in self-defense, yet they still spend more than a decade in prison. Judges tend to show batterers leniency when issuing their sentences, but fail to do so for women. For most of these women, killing their abuser is their first criminal act.
Why Do Abused Women Serve More Time Than Male Abusers?
The criminal justice system fails to protect victims of domestic violence and then punishes them for taking matters into their own hands. Judges rarely show victims the same leniency they show abusers. Women acting in self-defense may also face more serious charges because they tend to use weapons while the abuser can rely on his strength to overpower the victim.
A batterer’s primary weapons for abuse are his hands, fists, and feet. A typical battering episode involves slapping, punching, kicking, stomping, and choking a female victim. Since few women can overpower their spouses in heterosexual relationships, they use weapons that enhance the charges against them and lead to longer sentences upon their conviction.
Myths that Prevent Battered Women from Receiving a Fair Trial
Judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers are prone to believing myths that prevent women in abusive relationships from receiving a fair trial. Common myths are:
- That battered women can and should leave the relationships that put them in danger.
- That a battered woman on trial should fit a certain stereotype. If she doesn’t fit their ideological vision of a victim, she isn’t really one.
- That women are equally as violent as men, or more violent than men and that women instigate men into abusing them.
Historically, lawyers have failed to use evidence of abuse in court thinking it would hurt their clients’ cases. More information about this subject can be found in Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill by Elizabeth Dermody Leonard.
Criminal Defense You Can Count on in West Palm Beach
At The Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel, Brian Gabriel has worked extensively on domestic abuse cases in Palm Beach County. Attorney Brian Gabriel understands the intricacies of partner violence and can consult with witnesses to provide expert testimony when needed. Domestic abuse has a potent psychological impact on victims that affect their decision-making abilities and shatters their confidence. Often, victims do not have the means to escape dangerous situations.