Many Americans are familiar with the plight of Cyntoia Brown, a young sex trafficking victim who spent more than 15 years in prison for killing her would-be rapist before receiving clemency from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. The push for Brown’s clemency was fueled by civil rights groups, activists and celebrities who tweeted and made calls for her cause.
Brown’s release deserves celebration, but she’s but one of thousands of incarcerated women in similar circumstances. And while arrest rates in general continue to drop, arrest rates for women — for everything from misdemeanors to violent felonies — have risen in California. This disturbing trend requires further investigation and action.
According to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California, arrests in the state fell 58 percent in 2016 from a peak in 1989. That’s the good news. The bad news? Women now account for nearly a quarter of all arrests, up from 14 percent in the early 1980s.
In fact, PPIC’s study found felony violent arrest rates declined 37 percent for men over that time period but increased 62 percent for women, while misdemeanor assault and battery arrest rates declined 25 percent for men but increased 67 percent for women.
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The question is: why?
Women in the criminal justice system have been historically ignored. In the past year, however, the national conversation has focused on issues relating to women in unprecedented ways. PPIC’s data should motivate the state of California to try to untangle why women have experienced such a significant increase in arrests and to engage communities around possible solutions.
As a black female immigrant living in the United States and working closely with law enforcement agencies, I’m constantly aware of the strained relationship between police and communities of color. My journey has put me squarely in a space that forces me to think more broadly about the role of police, their power to arrest and the impact of that power on different groups in society — whether it be people of color, women, or people experiencing mental illness, substance use issues, or homelessness.
When the campaign to free Cyntoia Brown succeeded in communicating to people that she was a victim rather than a criminal, she won her freedom.
When a growing body of data showed that the majority of women arrested on prostitution charges may be the victims of sex trafficking, New York became the first state to pass a safe harbor law to combat sex trafficking. The 2009 law was designed as a solution to protect minors who were victims of commercial sex, treating them as victims rather than criminals. Since then, 34 other states have passed similar legislation.
New York legislators took action because the data painted a picture that demanded it. PPIC’s recent report on arrest trends offers California policymakers a similar opportunity to respond to negative trends.
The increase in female arrests is not unique to California. Data supports the narrowing of the gap between men and women across the country, caused in part by reforms that have had disparate effects on women. This suggests women are being excluded from reforms written with the intent to move people away from the criminal justice system. They’re also being criminalized for responses to gender-based abuse and discrimination.
It’s important for states to recognize the distinct journeys and needs of women, many of whom have experienced violence, trauma and abuse. California policymakers and law enforcement leaders must develop a better approach to meet the needs of women in the justice system.