In the United States, women represent roughly a quarter of all arrests. Women and men are both more likely to be arrested for less serious property crimes, but men are more likely than women to be involved in violent crime. Since 1960, while arrests in total have decreased, women have become a higher percentage of those arrests, partly due to an increase in drug-related arrests. Steffensmeier and Schwartz (2008) claim that this increase is not because more women are committing substance-abuse offenses, but because law enforcement officials have begun using broader, more expansive definitions of crimes, arresting more people for minor crimes. Because women are more likely to commit these minor crimes, females have been disproportionately added to the number of arrests.
In the late 1960s, recreational drug use among the middle-class increased as it became more socially mainstream. It was associated with countercultural movements and social and political unrest. In 1970, the Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which regulated and penalized drug use according to five different “schedules”. Each recreational drug was assigned a schedule based on its potential for addiction and abuse, its acceptable medical uses, and its safety profile. Each schedule carried different levels of penalties for use, possession, or distribution of a drug – Schedule I had the harshest penalties, while Schedule V had the most lenient ones.
The War on Drugs and public anti-drug sentiment reached a peak when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and First Lady Nancy Reagan started her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign targeted at middle-class children and adolescents. Simultaneously, the advent of crack cocaine in New York City severely impacted inner-city areas and increased the public’s political opposition to drug use. Reagan also signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences, removing discretion from judges when sentencing drug offenders.
Dana Britton in 2011 and Steffensmeier and Schwartz in 2008 conclude the War on Drugs has created a disproportionately large impact on women, especially on women of color, because of an increase in the severity and frequency of minor crime- and drug-related arrests and the fact that women are more likely than men are to commit non-serious crimes.
Bloom, Owen and Covington (2004) additionally state that the majority of women offenders are poor, undereducated, and underemployed, hurting their chances of desisting properly and increasing their risk of recidivism after leaving prison. Around 60% of women in state and federal prisons are mothers of minor children; the effect of the War on Drugs has been not only to disproportionately impact the women themselves, but also to impact their children, the next generation. In addition, as Britton and Beckett, Nyrop, and Pfingst point out, Hispanic and African-American women are overrepresented in the population of women involved in the criminal justice system.
The advent of crack cocaine, a cheaper version of cocaine that could be smoked, in American inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s coincided with rampant deindustrialization, increasing unemployment rates, and an increasing number of female heads-of-households. The advent of crack also came at the same time as the peak of the War on Drugs and its increasingly more punitive laws and focus on defunding welfare programs. Because of this, as well as the cheaper price of crack, women’s drug use rates went up. Ryder and Brisgone interview a group of mothers who grew up during this “Crack Era” in the 1990s to find out how they and their children were affected by the War on Drugs and crack.
They find that the mothers’ heavy use of drugs during this era heavily influenced their children to try drugs. Additionally, many women were pressured or chose to perform sex work in order to support their “urgent need for drugs”. The authors of this study found that the mothers’ addiction further forced them to spend less time with their families, disrupting ties between mother and child, although they did love their children and wanted to spend time with them when they could.