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:
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.