Study: Texas Needs Alternatives to Sending Women to Prison

A new study shows that the number of women sent to prisons in Texas has increased by more than 900 percent since 1980. Photo: Alina555/GettyImages

A new study shows that the number of women sent to prisons in Texas has increased by more than 900 percent since 1980. Photo: Alina555/GettyImages

by Mark Richardson

AUSTIN, Texas – Prison reform advocates say too many of the 12,000 women in Texas prisons don’t need to be behind bars.

A study by the nonpartisan Texas Criminal Justice Coalition finds that more than two-thirds of the state’s female inmates were convicted of nonviolent offenses and recommends that lawmakers develop alternative policies that emphasize more pretrial diversion and probation opportunities for women in the criminal justice system.

Lindsey Linder, an attorney with the Coalition, says the study finds that women in prison often have faced a different set of life experiences than men.

“You have a large percentage of the population being there for offenses that are largely the result of poverty, of substance abuse, of mental health, and are just not folks who need to be served in an incarceration setting,” she points out.

Linder says while the overall prison population in Texas is shrinking, the number of incarcerated women has grown rapidly in recent years.

She says the state and local communities need to address domestic violence and poverty among women, particularly those with custody of children.

The report was developed with statistics from the state prison system and a survey of 400 women in Texas prisons.

Linder says the report also recommends community-based treatment programs for trauma and substance abuse, and reforms to the state’s bail system, which often keeps women in poverty.

“The vast majority of women have significant trauma histories,” Linder stresses. “Over 80 percent of them have experienced domestic violence. Over half of them have experience sexual assault. Also, a much larger percentage of the women are mothers compared to men who are fathers in the system.”

Linder says recent Texas prison reforms have been aimed mostly at male inmates.

“What we found was simply that reforms that have been enacted in recent years have just not impacted women because they’re not targeted to serve the female population,” she states.

Linder says this is the first of two reports based on her research. The second, to be published in mid-April, will focus on specific programs and policies to reduce recidivism and help incarcerated women successfully return to their families and communities.

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