"Girlfriend Problem" Harms Women and Children, Impacted Families Call Mandatory Sentences Unfair and Destructive

June 14, 2005 12:00 am

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“Girlfriend Problem” Harms Women and Children, Impacted Families Call Mandatory Sentences Unfair and Destructive

Contact: Media@dcaclu.org

WASHINGTON — Several formerly incarcerated women, a child of an incarcerated woman and national experts on sentencing policy – including the American Civil Liberties Union – told lawmakers today about the negative effects that drug sentencing laws have on women and families and urged reform. Under current drug laws, even those with little involvement in drug trafficking operations – often women in relationships with men involved in drug-related activities – are held liable for the entire quantity of drugs charged in connection with the conspiracy.

This little known side effect is often called the “girlfriend problem” – the propensity of arrest and prosecution of low-level, minimally or unknowingly involved individuals for crimes associated with drug trafficking operations.

“In the war on drugs, an unintended casualty are women and their families,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Current laws disproportionately hurt those whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – mainly women. The 1.5 million children they’ve left behind so far are left with overburdened friends and family or in the child welfare system, where they’re at increased risk of physical or sexual abuse.”

Panelists in today’s briefing said that without meaningful information to trade with prosecutors for more lenient sentences, these minimally involved girlfriends and wives often suffer some of the longest and harshest prison sentences under current drug sentencing laws.

The ACLU noted that women are now the fastest growing population in the federal prison system. More than 70 percent of incarcerated women in state prisons are also the primary caretakers of at least two minors, displacing millions of children into foster care or other unstable situations, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Panelists at the briefing urged lawmakers to oppose legislation that would expand or create new mandatory minimums drug sentences, which fuel the alarming rate of increase in women’s incarceration.

Panelists also urged Congress to maintain and expand sentencing procedures such as the so-called “safety valve,” a federal sentencing guideline provision that allows for reduced sentences for low-level, first time drug offenders. Judges have frequently applied this provision in cases involving wives or girlfriends who minimally assisted a husband or boyfriend’s drug dealing, such as by answering the phone or passing packages of drugs to customers.

“If anything, the safety valve should be expanded, not eliminated,” says Kemba Smith, director of the Kemba N. Smith Foundation, a group that counsels young people about self-esteem and the criminal justice system.

Smith, the mother of a young son who was born in prison, was granted clemency by former President Bill Clinton after serving six-and-a-half years of a 24-year sentence for her peripheral involvement in a drug operation run by her abusive boyfriend.

Ayesha Murray, the daughter of a woman incarcerated on a cocaine conspiracy charge, also spoke. The ACLU’s McCurdy, along with sentencing experts from National Council of La Raza and the Open Society Policy Center discussed legislation that would expand or create new mandatory drug sentences, and the negative impact it would have on families. Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship and Cristina Rathbone, author of a new book about women in prison, also spoke.

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