Report: More Women Serving Extreme Sentences in the United States

The number of women serving extreme sentences in the United States has increased sharply in the last decade, a September 2021 report by a collaborative of criminal law reform organizations has found.

The report, In The Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States, released September 22 by The Sentencing Project, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, determined that the number of women serving sentences of life without possibility of parole soared 43% between 2008 and 2020, far outpacing the overall 2% increase in women imprisoned for violent crime during that time. The increase in death in prison sentences for women was nearly 1.5 times greater than the 29% increase in life without parole sentences for men in the same time frame.

“The number of women serving life without parole has increased substantially and faster than men serving life without parole,” Ashley Nellis, the author of the report, told the news organization, The 19th*, which reports on gender, politics and policy. “The systems that we have in this country that are supposed to provide safety nets, and are supposed to keep people safe and protect communities, I think are failing women,” she said.

The organizations analyzed data on the more than 6,600 women serving sentences of life without parole and the 52 women on death row in the United States today. They found that death sentences peaked for women in 1990 and have declined in the years since, after life without parole became a more widely available sentencing alternative. Death in prison sentences for women peaked in 2013 and have declined in the following years but, the report notes, the total number of women serving sentences of life without parole continues to rise.

The report noted a correlation between heavy usage of life without parole sentencing and capital sentencing, finding that states with a high number of women serving life without parole sentences that authorize the death penalty also have at least one woman on death row. Florida has the most women serving life without parole, with 241 imprisoned, and averaged an “alarming” 11 life without parole sentences per year during the period studied. Pennsylvania and California followed with 193 and 179 women serving death in prison sentences, respectively.

The report finds that the disproportionate growth of extreme sentencing for women is attributable, at least in part, to “gender-based stigma and bias that negatively affects [women’s] court outcomes.” However, the report says, “[t]heir experience of violence—both as victims and as perpetrators—are distinct from the experiences of men, but women are subjected to a criminal legal system that does not acknowledge these important differences.”

One critical factor that disproportionately subjects women to extreme sentences is mandatory minimums that require equally harsh punishments whether an offender is a major or a minor participant in the crime. The report notes that women frequently have substantially lesser involvement in these crimes, often have long histories of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and are often coerced into participation in the crimes by domineering romantic partners. The laws, however, do not afford the sentencer discretion to impose lesser sentences based upon their lesser culpability and, where they do, courts routinely fail to recognize trauma from domestic abuse as a mitigating factor.

In the Extreme also reports that extreme sentences are even more disproportionately imposed on Black women charged with killing their intimate partners. For a variety of reasons, including racism, sexism, economic marginalization, and stigma, Black women have unique vulnerabilities to domestic violence and are less likely to be believed when they assert that they committed the killing to prevent themselves from being killed or from suffering further physical injury.

Report on Women on Death Row Worldwide for Drug Offenses

The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, in collaboration with Harm Reduction International, issued a second report on women facing extreme punishment. The report, ‘No One Believed Me’: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses, was released in conjunction with United Nations Human Rights Council meetings in Geneva, Switzerland on October 5, 2021.

While imposing the death penalty for drug offenses violates international law and global human rights treaties, Harm Reduction International estimates that at least 3,000 people are on death rows for drug offenses worldwide, with an unknown additional number on death row in China. “In countries that punish drug offenses with death,” the report states, “a large majority of the women on death row were convicted of drug-related offenses.” Those sentenced to death for drug offenses are rarely major players in the drug trade, and the report found that in many cases, women sentenced to death “transported drugs under the influence or pressure of a male partner, who typically suffered fewer or no criminal consequences.”

The report examines the circumstances in which women commit drug offenses and are capitally charged and the impact of gender bias on their prosecution and sentencing.

Sources

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., In The Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States, a report by The Sentencing Project, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, September 2021; Charlotte Andrews-Briscoe, Laura Douglas, et al., in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Harm Reduction International, No One Believed Me”: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses, Cornell Center for the Death Penalty Worldwide, September 2021; Christina Carrega, Number of women serv­ing life sen­tences with­out parole has surged over the past decade, report shows”, CNN, September 22, 2021; Candace Norwood, More women are serv­ing life sen­tences. Experts are try­ing to deter­mine why., The 19th, October 52021