It’s National Women's Equality Day—Why Do We Lock Up so Many Women and Girls?

Today is National Women’s Equality Day. Women's Equality Day commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. The amendment was first introduced in 1878. Though Women’s Equality Day didn’t come around until 1971, when the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as Women's Equality Day. Throughout the years women have diligently fought for equal rights, though enormous strides have been made, there are some areas where women are still incredibly disadvantaged. The criminal justice system being one of the areas with the worst outcomes for women and girls. 

Women are showing up to the polls so why aren’t they making greater strides?

So much of women’s standing and power in this country is inextricably tied to the vote. Women are now the majority of the electorate. And yet, while the numbers show that women participate voraciously in civic life and outnumber men at the polls, our representation in the halls of power continues to lag.

Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, more women have voted than men in raw numbers in every presidential election. Since 1980, the proportion of eligible women who voted has been higher than the men’s equivalent. Black women show up at the polls in even more striking numbers, with turnout rates of 60%.

An undeniable force in the electoral system, why don’t women’s votes translate to equal representation in political presence and policy prioritization?

Who is the system failing?

There have been significant reform efforts nationwide to divert youth charged with low-level offenses which has resulted in dramatically driving down the country’s juvenile justice population. There have even been similar reform efforts in Oklahoma. But, girls have been largely overlooked in these efforts. The number of girls who are incarcerated has decreased significantly slower than the number of boys. This mean girls now comprise more of the juvenile justice population than ever before. The majority of girls continue to be detained for the same low level offenses that have been the focus of reform—namely status offenses, technical violations, simple assault, and public order offenses excluding weapons.

The practice of continuing to detain girls who commit minor offenses not only goes against research on effective juvenile justice practice and adolescent development, but also raises significant equity concerns, as girls are more likely to be held in custody and often spend more time in custody than boys for the same or similar low level offenses. 

Not only are youths being disproportionately profiled, youth of color are even more disadvantaged. According to the Sentencing Project, in Oklahoma, the white youth placement rate per 100,000 was 53 while it was 281 for black youth. Nationally, black youths are 4 times more likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white peers. 

According to Prison Policy, LGBTQ people are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system, though the most egregious is within the juvenile justice system. They are arrested, incarcerated, and subjected to community supervision at significantly higher rates than straight and cisgender people. This is especially true for trans people and queer women.

But it doesn’t stop there...

Regardless of reform efforts, in the last decade, there has been an increase in more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female incarcerated population stands over seven times higher than in 1980. 

Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate for women, just behind Idaho. Though prior to 2021, Oklahoma held the highest incarceration rate for women for 25 years. 

The burden of the state’s high incarceration rate falls hardest on women of color. Black women are incarcerated at about twice the rate of their representation in the state’s adult population, Reveal’s analysis shows. For Native American women, the disparity is almost three times their share of the population.

Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails.

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration results in trauma for both the mother and children. And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

Unfairly locked up? 

Another factor to the high rate of incarceration of women in Oklahoma is due to disproportionate sentencing. Though this happens in many cases, the most obvious example of this is “Failure to Protect”. Oklahoma adopted a law designed to stop child abuse in 2002. It's commonly known as "Failure to Protect". Generally, it was meant to be interpreted as any parent or guardian who knows a child is being abused and fails to protect the child can be charged with a felony and sent to prison.

But in practice, Oklahoma's courts and prosecutors have treated women differently than men under the failure to protect law. In fact, both “60 Minutes" and ACLU found that 15 women who were never found to have abused their children have received harsher punishments than the men who did, which translates to one in four women convicted of failure to protect received a longer sentence than the actual child abuser. Furthermore, half of those women were victims of abuse themselves.

Women should not be locked up at such high rates in Oklahoma — we vote, we raise our voices, it’s past time for us to be heard. End disparate sentencing. End the cycle of trauma of sending mothers to prison for nonviolent, low-level offenses.