Monday, March 27, 2017

China Could Find Lessons From the Fifty States for Reducing Recidivism of Women Offenders (Part 2 of 2)


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Read part 1 of this article here.

When Objectives are Clear, Non-Custodial Measures are More Effective

In addition to the charts and statistics presented above, several recent empirical studies support the claim that targeted non-custodial treatment programs can help reduce the number of women in prison by limiting recidivism among women offenders. In California, a study carried out by researchers at UCLA found that among 1,182 women who participated in a community-based aftercare program (which included residential drug abuse treatment for 6 to 15 months, comprehensive case management, vocational assistance, and parenting and health-related services), those who completed the aftercare program were 36 percent less likely to return to prison compared with those who did not complete the treatment program. These results are summarized in Figure 4 below:

Figure 4. Results of UCLA Study

In a different study from 2006, funded by the National Institute of Justice, researchers found that drug offenses often lead to repeat arrests for women and recommended “enhanced substance abuse treatment in prison and in the community” to combat recidivism. Because women tend to be non-violent offenders, the researchers also recommended that re-entry and parole should emphasize the delivery of treatment and services rather than surveillance.

The state of Oklahoma, as seen in Figure 2, features the worst record among the US states of keeping women out of prison. Surprisingly, an alternative to the prison program in Tulsa, a city in Oklahoma, called Women in Recovery has produced tangible results that demonstrate the effectiveness of non-custodial measures, even when the broader locality lacks a systematic approach to reducing recidivism. The recidivism rate for women who complete the Women in Recovery diversion program in Tulsa is only 4.9 percent; the rate for all of Oklahoma is almost three times higher. Not unexpectedly, the Tulsa Women in Recovery program addresses the underlying issues leading to the incarceration of women, including sexual and physical abuse, family separation, mental health problems, substance abuse, and employment readiness.

Difficulties of Implementing Non-Custodial Measures

Although the research and data shown above support the idea that non-custodial measures for women help to reduce recidivism, there are several challenges to the successful implementation of these alternatives to incarceration. In Massachusetts, for example, low numbers of women and girls are incarcerated and a wide variety of specialized alternatives to incarceration are available, with many of these programs demonstrating that they reduce short and long-term costs. Nonetheless, public funding for these programs remains unstable.

Alternative custody programs can also be slowed by bureaucratic red tape. In California, alternative custody programs help women transition out of prison life, but the program’s application process is daunting—the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can take anywhere from six months to a year to make a decision. State officials can also have trouble convincing women to participate in alternatives to incarceration, a problem evident in the UCLA study mentioned above—even though the program reduced recidivism and proved effective, only about one-third of women participated (again see Figure 4).

Fortunately, some states continue working to improve non-custodial measures. The Wellesley Centers for Women finds that while funding for diversion programs in Massachusetts can be unstable, other programs that feature “intermediate sanctions” and “accountability for participants’ substance use and program attendance” have proven more resilient. Further, states can become more proactive when mandated to do so, for instance, diversion programs in California began to open more quickly to comply with a court order to expand alternative to custody programs, which stemmed from a wider national effort to reduce prison overcrowding.

Can Lessons from the Fifty States Address China’s Rising Population of Women Prisoners?

The experiences of several American states show that non-custodial measures can reduce recidivism of women offenders, thereby helping to lower the number of women in prison. This lesson could be useful for China, which is dealing with its own rapidly rising prison population. As Dui Hua has pointed out, as of mid-2015, China had more than 107,000 women in prison, up 3.2 percent from the previous year, and up more than 50 percent since 2003. On the non-mainland Chinese localities of Hong Kong and Macau, the issue of women in prison is also a major problem—the World Prison Brief has noted that the proportion of women in prison in special administrative regions of China such as Hong Kong (19.4 percent) and Macau (21 percent) are the largest in the world.

Although it is important to consider the many differences between the US and China, there are some similarities that show how the experience of the US states can be helpful for Chinese officials. Research has shown that, like the experiences of many US states, women prisoners in China suffer from mental health disorders, frayed contacts with the outside world, and drug-related arrests. Chinese prisons routinely limit women prisoners’ contact with the outside world, which can exacerbate psychological distress, disconnect from family, and lack of a support structure upon release from prison; a large majority (86 percent) of Chinese women prisoners are in prison for nonviolent crimes, nearly half of which are drug related.

These similarities suggest that there are valuable lessons that many jurisdictions, including China, could study to limit the number of women in prison. The statistics, tables, and empirical research cited above show that targeted non-custodial measures that include mental health treatment, addiction recovery, and family support can benefit society and reduce public costs by reducing recidivism (up to 36 percent, according to the UCLA study). The similar characteristics of women in prison across countries and the positive results in several US states indicate that addressing the underlying causes of incarceration among women might prove effective in limiting incarceration in China.

China Could Find Lessons From the Fifty States for Reducing Recidivism of Women Offenders (Part 1 of 2)


Image Credit: Getty Images.

In countries across the world, punitive policies are contributing to serious prison overcrowding issues, with many national prison systems holding more than double their official capacity. And what’s more is that the number of women in prison is growing at a faster rate than men.

Part of the problem is incarceration itself: instead of deterring repeat offenses, prisons act as ‘schools of crime’ that increase the likelihood of women prisoners to re-offend. Prisons function to isolate offenders from their family support networks, reduce job skills, and harm the mental health of offenders. By contrast, non-custodial measures have routinely proven to prevent recidivism and lower the number of women in prison. In 2010, the United Nations issued The Bangkok Rules, which advocates for non-custodial measures for women prisoners partly because of this interrelation between prisons and recidivism : “The failure of imprisonment to address the underlying factors leading to offending behavior by women is reflected in the increasing rate of re-offending among women in some countries.”

Substance abuse and mental health disorders are among the primary factors leading to the incarceration of women. To give just one example, The Greenhope Services for Women, an organization based in New York that provides substance abuse and mental health treatment to women offenders reported that 100% of its service users suffered from substance abuse and 70% from mental health related trauma. In addition to substance abuse and mental illness, other factors that contribute to re-offending and rising rates of women in prison include homelessness, unemployment, and loss of family support structure.

Implementation of Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders in US States

With the realization that prisons often serve to reinforce criminality rather than treat it, several states across the US have implemented non-custodial measures to limit the public cost of recidivism by addressing the root causes of female incarceration. Alternatives to custody include jail diversion, work release, electronic monitoring, fines, community service orders, substance abuse and mental health treatment, family reunification, and housing assistance. In general, non-custodial measures can be flexibly administered before an offender is placed in jail, before placement in prison, or after serving some time in prison.

Dui Hua researched the alternatives to custody available to women offenders across different US states. Figure 1 is a non-exhaustive summary of the different non-custodial measures that are implemented at the state level or below in the US:

Figure 1. Selected Non-custodial Measures for Women in Prison in US States

Type of Non-Custodial measure What Stage is the Non-Custodial Measure used? Non-Custodial Programs Can Include the Following Features States in which measures have been utilized (non-exhaustive)
Jail diversion/furlough, including for pregnant women; substance abuse and mental health treatment Pre-custody Officials including local police help identify mental illness or substance abuse issues in suspected offenders and provide treatment instead of incarceration. MA, NY, OK (Tulsa), NC, NY, IL
"Intermediate" sanctions Pre-custody Substance abuse programs offer "accountability"/harsher sanctions if substance abuse treatment/attendance goals are not met. MA
Home detention/electronic monitoring Pre-custody Instead of prison, offenders serve sentences in specific residential locations, but offenders are required to submit to monitoring by electronic or GPS devices. CA
Gender-specific program Pre-custody Specific "women’s track" programming aims for a gender and culturally responsive approach to women offenders. MA
Work release Pre-prison (i.e., in-jail) Offenders are allowed to leave custody for specified periods of time to work or perform community service. CA
Mental health treatment Post-prison Programs offer comprehensive residential treatment, day treatment, or outpatient programs; non-profit organizations can act as service providers. NY, CA, CO
Substance abuse treatment Post-prison Programs designed to assist women offenders who have ongoing struggles with addiction. NY, CA, PA, WI, CO, AL, AZ, MI, NJ
Employment coaching/job training Post-prison Programs aim to prepare candidates for job interviews and employment; non-profit organizations can act as service providers NY, WY, PA, KS, IL, WY
Early release for prisoners, with family reunification Post-prison Residential programs designed to help prisoners serve limited portions of prison sentences in a non-prison residential facility; children of offenders allowed to live with their mothers. CA, MA
Housing assistance Post-prison Programs help released offenders find safe and affordable housing; non-profit organizations can act as service providers. NY, PA, KS, MO, IL, MD
Broad re-entry to society Post-prison Programs do not specialize in particular areas, instead providing general assistance to women recently released from prison. MI, MD, IL, MN, TX, NY, PA, VT, CA, NY, FL, NY, AZ, NC, MO, RI

Sources: National Institute of Corrections; The Wellesley Centers for Women; Greenhope Services for Women; Women’s Prison Association; The New York Times

This analysis, in combination with data on women and girls collected by The Sentencing Project, suggest that non-custodial programs tend to offer greater services, at various stages of women’s conflict with the law, and in states that have done a better job of keeping women out of prison. In states like Massachusetts, for example, the emphasis on non-custodial measures appears to contribute to its low rate of incarceration—only 15 per 100,000 women are imprisoned. For context, the average rate of women in prison across all US states is 58 per 100,000, and the state with the highest rate, Oklahoma, incarcerates 142 out of every 100,000 women. The rate of incarceration for women across US states by The Sentencing Project, as of 2014, is provided in Figure 2:

Figure 2. Highest and Lowest Female State Sentencing Rates (per 100,000), 2014.


In addition to the benefits of applying a gendered perspective to incarceration, a youth perspective also yields a better understanding of the benefits of using non-custodial measures. Similar to the variation in the treatment of women offenders throughout the US, there is large variation among US states regarding the treatment of girls in conflict with the law. The national rate of incarceration for female juvenile delinquents is 50 per 100,000; in Wyoming, 209 girls are incarcerated per 100,000; by contrast, in Massachusetts, only 10 per 100,000 are incarcerated.Figure 3 presents rates of incarceration of women prisoners for the top five and bottom five states, by rates of their confinement of girls.

Figure 3. Highest and Lowest State Rates of Confinement for female juvenile prisoners (per 100,000), 2013.


Policymakers in different countries could do well to examine the reasons why certain US states have been successful in limiting the rate of girls in confinement. [1] A recent US Department of Justice report recommends that girls in conflict with the law should be kept in the least-restrictive settings possible, mainly because “serving youth in community-based environments can reduce additional justice system involvement, lead to positive outcomes for the youth, and reduce system costs.” This advice might be particularly useful for legal reformers in China, where the juvenile corrections system has yet to create regulations or stable models for community corrections institutions aimed at reducing the number of girls in confinement. Ultimately, the recommendations are similar for both girls and women in conflict with the law: non-restrictive settings should address the underlying factors contributing to criminal activity—especially mental health, substance abuse, family support, and vocational training.


1. The age limit for juvenile residential facilities in the US depends on state laws, however the approximate age range cited by the researchers in Figure 3 is from 12 to 18 years old. Source: The Sentencing Project.   Return to Article

Continue reading part 2 of this article here.