Left Behind: The Need For Program Evaluation In Women’s Incarceration

Kaid Ray-Tipton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Marginalized and Forgotten 

Incarceration captures society’s most marginalized people. The vast majority of America’s carceral facilities are filled with men–89 percent of the country’s total incarcerated population–and much of the attention on corrections focuses on men. The overwhelming majority of incarcerated men overshadow how confinement uniquely affects non-binary individuals, transgender individuals, and women. Despite the obscurity, women have had a higher imprisonment rate than men since the 1980s. While promising alternatives exist that divert women away from incarceration, too few resources are invested towards understanding the best ways to care for systems-involved women. More studies and evaluations of women’s incarceration are needed to illustrate the most effective means to achieve decarceration and public safety. Reviewing the state of women’s incarceration is a beneficial first step.

Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative

Gendered “Justice” System

The Prison Policy Initiative published a report in Oct. 2019 outlining how gender influences legal systems. The report provides many examples of gendered differences that occur. For example, more women are in local jails rather than state prisons, and this is the opposite for men. In youth facilities, hold 10 percent of girls on status offenses like “running away, truancy, and incorrigibility,” while holding 3 percent of boys for the same offenses. Of the women who are under correctional supervision, 81 percent are on probation or parole–contrasted to the nearly two-thirds of the total population under correctional supervision that are on probation or parole. 

When aggregated by gender, the data makes it difficult to understand differences in the way the system incarcerates women. The gender wage gap can make it challenging to afford bail and thus extends pre-trial jail stays. While juvenile justice systems criminalize girls for status offenses like running away, studies have shown that a direct correlation exists between incarcerated girls and being survivors of sexual abuse. Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers (many of them single). When returning to the community, they have to manage young children while juggling the punitive responsibilities of probation or parole.

Lack of Evaluation

The data above demonstrate the unique circumstances that contribute to women’s incarceration. Since the justice system incarcerates more than 230,000 women and over one million women are on probation or parole, it is necessary to find the best approaches to divert women from incarceration and support women who are systems-involved. Program evaluations showcase promising practices that “produce rigorous research findings, data, and analytics to inform decision making.” As a whole, the “criminal” justice field lags behind other sectors that have adopted evaluation research. 

To move towards women’s decarceration and increased public safety, effective programs and practices must exist at all levels of America’s legal systems: police, courts, corrections, probation, parole, and reentry. The National Institute of Justice, which is under the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, manages a national clearinghouse, crimesolutions.gov, that rates programs and practices that relate to outlined goals in criminal justice. Many programs and practices listed on crimesolutions.gov are not specifically for women, but some programs and practices disproportionately benefit women. 

One rated program is a pre-booking diversion program from Seattle: the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program. To reduce recidivism, researchers designed the LEAD program to divert individuals arrested for low-level drug offenses and prostitution away from jail and into case management. The evaluators of the program are tasked to find the relevant studies to conduct their review. In the only study federal researchers used to assess the LEAD program’s effectiveness, 34 percent of the participants in the evaluation were women that were diverted away from incarceration. Crimesolutions.gov rated the LEAD program as promising. 

While the Seattle Police Department, fortunately, had the resources to fund an external evaluation of the LEAD program, many community-based programs do not have such capital. Community programs that are helping to keep women out of carceral facilities need additional support. Examples of such programs include A New Way of Life that provides housing to women who are systems-involved, the Women Involved in Reentry Efforts (WIRE) group that provides methods to navigate life post-incarceration, and National Bail Out which works to release women from incarceration through bail. Rigorous evaluations of these programs can enhance growth opportunities for their organizations and improve outcomes for communities looking for alternatives to the status quo.

When it comes to the penal systems in America, one size does not fit all. Though the majority of incarcerated Americans are men, women have unique needs that cannot be overlooked. The lack of studies on gender-responsive programs can have harmful effects on communities by not finding what works best for women. As the incarceration rate of women increases, more evaluations of programs and practices could identify alternatives that can lead to women’s decarceration and public safety for all communities. 

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