Since 1996 there has been a 261% per capita increase in the number of women locked away in the Pima County Jail. Our community has followed a horrifying nation-wide trend; since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold.
The women we lock away in jail are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use. Nearly 80% of women in jail nationwide are mothers, and most are single parents.
The statistics on the number of women in jail who are survivors of sexual assault are particularly horrifying. It is cheap lip service to claim to support survivors of sexual abuse in their recovery from trauma, while at the same time subjecting survivor after survivor to the trauma of incarceration, often for very minor drug offenses. We, who vilify and prosecute these same survivors, often have far too little regard for how and why they broke the law in the first place. This must change.
Combating sexual violence does not end with arresting perpetrators. If we sincerely want to address how violence plagues our communities, we must dedicate ourselves to helping survivors throughout all stages of their trauma and recovery. That means viewing substance abuse as a public health issue, not strictly a criminal justice one. That means not locking assault survivors behind bars for trying to numb the pain of violence and victimization. That means engaging in a difficult public discussion about a tragic and unacknowledged effect of sexual assault – it sometimes turns a “victim” into a “criminal.”