The highly-publicized shootings of Michael Brown, Sam Dubose and several other African-American men has shined a spotlight on how the criminal justice system interacts with men of color. But with Sandra Bland’s recent death in the Waller County Jail, some are now asking how that same justice system treats women of color.
On the cover of the largest African-American-owned paper in the City of Houston — The Houston Forward Times — the headline reads, “The New ‘Jane’ Crow: Black Women Are The Target For Mass Incarceration.” Jeffrey Boney is the author of that article, and he lays out some pretty staggering statistics on African-American women being involved with the criminal justice system:
– 1 in 100 African American women are in prison.
– African-American women are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than White women.
And Boney says these numbers shouldn’t be ignored. “It just speaks to what a lot of African-American civil rights organizations and others have been saying for some time,” he says. “Through the war on drugs and other issues — like mandatory minimum sentencing and the three strikes rule — they’ve negatively impacted African-American people.”
And not just African-American people, but African-American women in particular. “Thirteen percent of the entire female population in the United States are African-American, yet they represent 50 percent of the entire female prison population,” Boney says. “It’s extremely startling and it’s something systemic that many believe is negatively impacting… African-American people.”
So why does the media always focus on African-American men? “It goes back to… there was a book called “The New Jim Crow“, written by Michelle Alexander, which challenged everybody to stop ignoring this issue and to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America,” Boney says. “What we see is the same things that have impacted African-American males, they’ve impacted African-American females.”
But Boney says it isn’t a mystery to him why so many African-American women filling up county jails and state prisons. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that many… African-American women find themselves incarcerated for a mass period of time [for] low-level offenses,” he says. “It could be anything from check fraud or some level of theft, or even drugs.”
So if African-American women are spending too much time behind bars for low-level offenses, is the problem our policing or our laws? Boney says we need to fix both. “Those laws that are on the books that are implemented by members of Congress or state legislatures… have to be carried out by members of law enforcement,” he says. “And so when you have an emphasis on those laws being carried out by law enforcement, then you ask yourself ‘Where do I find individuals who may be the biggest violators of, say, drugs, or certain types of crimes.'” Boney argues that that incentive to arrest pushes police to lock up more minorities.
“The majority of folks that are in prison that are African-American — whether they be male or female — are really in there because of drugs and this war on drugs,” Boney says. “That’s why you see even President Obama here recently having pardoned many individuals because of drug offenses where they were in prison for life sentences,” Boney says. With presidential pardons in short supply, Boney and advocates like him are hoping for more systemic change to our country’s drug laws and minimum sentencing laws.