Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country.
In 1970 most jails did not have a single female inmate. The 1970 population of around 8,000 women has since increased to nearly 110,000 women in 2014.
State and local government systems and facilities are predominately designed to handle men. The rapidly growing female population is pushing state and local officials to examine how existing policies can be tailored to meet the needs of justice-involved women.
Late last year a group of legislators and legislative staff members took part in the “Justice-Involved Women Site Visit” in Portland, Ore. The visit was planned and carried out through an NCSL partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The meeting provided legislators with information about justice-involved women, educated them about the effects of trauma in women’s lives before, during and after incarceration, and showcased innovative new programs designed to address the needs of women.
Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate from the Vera Institute of Justice, opened the meeting with an overview of women in jails—the reasons why women are incarcerated and what research exists on how to better address this expanding population. Vera’s 2016 report, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform” paints a portrait of women in jails and looks at what drives the growth of this population and what might be done to reverse the trend.
Attendees then heard from Travis Parker, a behavioral health expert, about the role that trauma plays across the criminal justice system. Jails and correctional facilities are often ill-equipped to address the needs of individuals—particularly women—who have a history of traumatic experiences, and often basic policies and procedures can compound the problem. Travis shared his first-hand experiences from working with justice-involved women and also educated members on existing research and the importance of trauma-informed practices.
Site visit attendees also heard from local officials including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Executive Director Abbey Stamp about recent county efforts to reduce unnecessary jail incarceration.
One of these efforts is the Diane Wade House, a brand-new Afrocentric transitional housing program for justice-involved women. The program is the first of its kind in the nation and aims to help women of color be successful on probation and avoid unnecessary jail use. The Diane Wade House is intended to be a low-barrier program, meaning that eligibility requirements are designed to reduce common barriers to housing for returning women, such as criminal history or sobriety requirements. The home has the capacity to house 38 women and provide gender-responsive, trauma-informed services like culturally specific mental health stabilization and support services. Diane Wade House will also serve as a day center, offering mentoring services, coordinated case management and curriculum specifically tailored for African American women.
Meeting attendees had the opportunity to tour the facility prior to its opening and discuss the program with Monta Knudson, the executive director of Bridges to Change which is the local non-profit organization tasked with operating the new home. The Diane Wade House officially opened earlier this year with a ribbon cutting ceremony and more than 100 community supporters on hand.
You can tour the Diane Wade House too!
The group also visited the Department of Community Justice’s (DCJ) Women and Family Services Unit. The new unit was created when DCJ consolidated most female community supervision caseloads to one location to enhance gender- and trauma-informed responsiveness for women. Attendees visited with DCJ staff in a room designed to meet the needs of justice-involved women and their families—a more relaxed setting away from downtown Portland equipped with toys and activities for children.
The final stop for the attendees was a meeting of the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee. A group tasked with overseeing the use of state justice reinvestment grant funds which also serves as the guiding force of local justice reform and a model of incredible collaboration. The steering committee is composed of voting members representing local collaborating agencies and stakeholders including the district attorney’s office, the department of community justice, local law enforcement, the judicial branch, treatment providers, victim’s representatives and the local public defense bar. In what was observed as a demonstration of incredible dedication, members meet weekly at 7 a.m. on Fridays to check in on the progress of recommended reforms and have frank conversations about how the local justice system is functioning. The committee provides a forum for communication among agency directors and elected officials that might not otherwise exist, providing an opportunity to coordinate, process and address issues on a systemic level.
After the early morning convening, attendees met with some of these local officials including Multnomah County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Nan Waller and DCJ Director Erika Preuitt about behavioral health interventions that have been implemented in Multnomah County. The discussion was led by Travis Parker and used the Sequential Intercept Model to evaluate where opportunities for intervention exist.
Additional resources and meeting information can be found below.
State & Other Resources