WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Aug 2015 | Video

The Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women in the Americas: Opportunities for Sentencing Reform

This taped briefing was sponsored by WOLA and the Open Society Policy Center, and took place on July 17, 2015, on Capitol Hill.

At the state, federal, and international levels, support for sentencing reform—particularly for drug-related crimes—is growing exponentially, with support from both liberals and conservatives. Harsh sentencing policies for drug offenses have led to mass incarceration across the Americas, affecting primarily poor communities and communities of color, thereby perpetuating cycles of poverty and tearing families apart. Across the ideological spectrum, advocates and elected officials have now recognized that excessive punishment is neither an effective nor just use of scarce resources.

Drug sentencing policies affect women in a number of particular ways. Across the Americas, women are being incarcerated for minor, non-violent, drug-related crimes at an alarming rate. In many Latin American countries, up to two-thirds of all incarcerated women are in prison on drug-related charges. According to 2008 research from the Pew Research Center, one out of every 100 black women between age 35 and 39 is behind bars, and one out of every 265 women—irrespective of age or gender—is incarcerated. Many have little or no schooling, live in conditions of poverty, and are often heads of household and responsible for the care of young and elderly dependents. They are not leaders or protagonists in criminal networks. Rather, most are performing low-level, high-risk tasks and are sometimes coerced into drug dealing and trafficking by intimate partners.

Leaders across the hemisphere are calling for drug law reforms to ensure proportionality in sentencing, alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenses, and more economic investment in communities impacted by drugs. In this briefing, experts from across the hemisphere will provide analysis on how drug policies and incarceration affect women in particular, and what policies and programs could be enacted to address the broader issues related to mass incarceration in the Americas. OSPC Senior Policy Analyst Jasmine Tyler will provide opening remarks, and WOLA Senior Fellow Coletta Youngers will moderate the event.

Featured speakers include:

Kemba Smith became an advocate for a variety of criminal justice issues after serving 6.5 years in federal prison after becoming involved with a major figure in a crack cocaine ring. Smith regained her freedom after President Clinton granted her clemency in December 2000. Her case drew support from across the nation and the world to reverse a disturbing trend in the rise of lengthy sentences for first time non-violent drug offenders. She has been featured on CNN and Nightline, and in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and People magazine. She currently runs the Kemba Smith Foundation, an education and advocacy organization.

Andrea James has worked within the criminal justice system for more than 25 years as a youth worker to a former criminal defense attorney. In 2009 she was disbarred as an attorney, and sentenced to a 24-month federal prison sentence. Even after a lifetime of work seeking justice on behalf of disenfranchised people, she was stunned at what she encountered upon entering the federal prison system. Ms. James has committed herself to fulfilling the promise she made to these women who remain in prison, to speak their truth, advocate for an end to the war on drugs and to support a shift toward community wellness. She is the founder of Families for Justice as Healing and author of Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts On The Politics of Mass Incarceration.

Luciana Boiteux is a leading expert on drug policy and incarceration in the Americas. Since 2007, she has served as Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at the Faculty of Law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and coordinates the Drug Policy and Human Rights Research Group at the same university. Ms. Boiteux is also currently Vice President of the Prison Board of Rio de Janeiro and is a member of the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD). She holds a degree in Law and Master’s of Law from the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, as well as a PhD in Criminal Law from the University of São Paulo.

Ernesto Cortés is currently Executive Director of the Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs (ACEID) and lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Master of Drug Dependence of the Faculty of Pharmacology at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). He has extensive experience working in research, training, and advocacy on issues such as drug use, harm reduction, youth and community management, and has also published several scientific articles on the subject. Mr. Cortes holds a degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), a Master’s in Criminology with an emphasis on Human Security from the University for International Cooperation, and a Master’s in Mental Health from the Miguel Hernández University.