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Criminal justice reform must focus on women who are incarcerated

Women in our prisons and jails are much more than just inmates: Many are mothers, caregivers, and survivors of trauma, with complex and diverse needs. No doubt they have made mistakes — and they are paying a heavy price for them — but they’re also working to rebuild their lives, return to their families, and plan for their futures.

Unfortunately, our system is ill equipped to help them achieve those goals. The state has a dearth of community-based residential reentry services for women as they make the often difficult transition from incarceration back into the community.

It’s time for that to change.

Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers recognized the dire need for community-based residential reentry services for female inmates when they designated $1 million out of a new $5 million reentry line item in the state budget for programs supporting women and older inmates. Some of that funding will allow for the reopening of McGrath House in Boston, the Commonwealth’s only gender-specific community-based reentry center for women.

That’s a great start, but one program is nowhere near enough. This year, we are hoping to take another step forward by securing $7 million in state funding for reentry programs so that they can assist many more individuals across the Commonwealth.

Nationally, more than half of all women in state and federal prisons have children younger than 18. Most women who are incarcerated have also been the victims of violence; 79 percent of women in prison have reported a history of physical abuse, and more than 60 percent have reported sexual abuse. These women are also far more likely than men to have lived experience with mental illness; more than two-thirds of women in US prisons and jails have a history of mental health illnesses, compared with 35 percent of male prisoners and 41 percent of men in jails.

The majority of women who are incarcerated are not violent felons; more than half of them were convicted of drug or property crimes.

Quality reentry programs that combine oversight, accountability, and support in finding housing, employment, and counseling services can have a dramatic impact on reducing recidivism rates for both men and women. But these programs are especially important for women who are incarcerated, who are more likely to struggle with mental health, substance use disorders, and past trauma. Connecting women with resources to manage these challenges can help them succeed in the community.

The benefits of reentry services geared toward women extend far beyond the individuals who receive those services directly. In 2012, about 69,000 children in Massachusetts had experienced having a parent in jail or prison. Those children are at a higher risk for having trouble in school and experiencing mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. By effectively reducing recidivism for women through reentry programs, we can prevent further trauma for those children and support stronger families today and more robust communities tomorrow.

Massachusetts last year recognized the alarming lack of reentry services in general and for women in particular. Carving out dedicated funding was a monumental first step; now it’s time to take the next one by extending these services to other communities. Let’s make sure these women have the building blocks they need to succeed.

Rachael Rollins is district attorney of Suffolk County. Senator Cynthia Creem is majority leader of the Massachusetts Senate. Representative Liz Malia is the House assistant vice chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.



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