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US crime bill does little for black women

The U.S. Capitol building is seen before the start of President Barack Obama's primetime address to a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington

Last week, EBONY published an article about the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, simply known as the crime bill, and its effect on black women — something I’d never considered.

The bill, which was originally authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, remains the largest crime bill in history. It included funding for prisons and a large expansion of law enforcement but also stiff gang provisions and “three strikes” language, all of which served to actualize a prison industrial complex we generally refer to as “mass incarceration.” Today, portions of the crime bill, particularly its limited investment in prevention — are generally regarded as a “terrible mistake.”

Here are a couple ways the crime bill does little for black women in this country:

– Violence against women: The crime bill allocated more that $1.5 million to the prevention and investigation of violence against women. However, while the effort to bring attention to gender-based violence may have had some positive impact, it has been difficult to reconcile with the ever-increasing reliance on incarceration as a remedy for the nation’s social and medical problems (e.g., addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, etc.). In this climate, women like Kemba Smith — who never sold drugs herself, but who suffered from an extremely abusive relationship with a man who sold illegal drugs — were sent to prison. Smith was granted clemency by President Clinton in December 2000; but there are many women who are still in prison— serving life sentences for drug and other offenses — without consideration of their victimization.

– Elimination of education funds for incarcerated people: A highly controversial component of the law restricted financial support for education in correctional facilities. Between 1991 and 1997, approximately 40 percent of all inmates did not have a high school diploma or GED. A survey of five all-female jails in 1995, shortly after the crime bill was signed into law, found that none of the jails provided college courses to the women who were incarcerated there. A recent audit in California found that women (including 35 black women) who had been illegally sterilized in the state’s prisons had below a high school level of reading proficiency. For females, education is an important protective factor against incarceration. In other words, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to find employment and ultimately, steer away from the criminal justice system. Today, while the U.S. Department of Education has produced a helpful guide for supporting the educational needs of formerly incarcerated people, there is currently little consideration for the specific learning needs of incarcerated women.