This weekend many will celebrate Mother’s Day with their families, but it’s worth taking a sober moment to recognize that, for many, it will simply be another holiday to come and go with their mother behind bars. An oft-overlooked crisis for American families is the rate at which we incarcerate women and separate mothers from their children.
Today, women are incarcerated at historically high rates. Since 1978, the national women’s prison population has grown 834% — more than twice the growth rate of the men’s population. And while some states have recently experienced drops in their prison populations, most of that decrease has come from the male prison populations. Meanwhile, the number of incarcerated women has continued to grow.
Sadly, national research has revealed that the majority of the women come into contact with the justice system do so as a result of mental health challenges or substance dependence or abuse, and most have a history of physical or sexual abuse.
Our aggressive incarceration of women has been particularly destructive for their families. More than half of the women in state prisons or jails have children, and those children suffer acutely. It should certainly come as no surprise that kids with an incarcerated mother suffer from intense emotional stress, financial hardship, trouble in school, and social isolation.
And this trend has had a greater impact on lower-income families and families of color. African-American and Latino kids are over seven and two times more likely, respectively, to have a parent incarcerated than their white peers.
Arizona families are not immune to this troubling trend. In fact, we are one of the worst offenders. We incarcerate women at almost twice the rate of most other states, and four times the rate of our neighbor, Utah.
The vast majority are being sent to prison for non-violent offenses, and they are spending significantly longer time there than in other states. And according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, 88 percent of women in Arizona prisons have moderate to intensive substance abuse treatment needs — most of whom will never receive treatment.
Even more heartbreaking, more than half of these women are mothers and have left children behind.
We can do so much better by our children and families. Knowing that so many women who become entangled in the justice system have overwhelmingly been victims themselves, we need to embrace more thoughtful, effective and — dare I say — caring responses. We can choose to divert many more women to healthcare systems and treatment that can address their unmet mental health and substance abuse needs.
In the rare case where the justice system is necessary, we can choose to make community-based supervision the norm, not the exception, so women can still care for their children while serving their time.
Let’s celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend by mapping a new and better path for the mothers and children impacted by incarceration.