A Free Start: Community-based Organizations as an Antidote to the Mass Incarceration of Women Pretrial
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In 1973, the feminist newsmagazine Off Our Backs featured a segment on women in jail awaiting trial in Washington, D.C. Many of the women faced minor charges, such as soliciting prostitution, but remained in detention because they could not afford to pay even very low amounts of monetary bail. The magazine interviewed Myrna Raeder, then a fellow at Georgetown, and other attorneys involved in a class action suit against D.C. corrections, who argued that low-income women were unjustly subjected to the punitive effects of pretrial detention, in violation of their due process rights. Raeder reported to the newsmagazine, “as a practical matter, many bondsmen refuse to write bonds for small amounts which yield only a limited fee.” Forty years later, advocates are still pushing courts to consider alternatives to setting bail, which effectively leaves poor women in detention pretrial. During the last few years, a number of reports have been published to encourage the use of alternatives to pretrial incarceration, particularly to address the needs of the rising number of women in the system. This comment illustrates how collaborations with community-based programs can potentially reduce the mass incarceration of women in jails across the country. First, I consider the consequences of defaulting to pretrial detention in women’s jails. Second, I argue that community-based pretrial support for people who would otherwise be in detention is one of the most effective paths towards reducing mass incarceration. Finally, I examine how to close gaps in the provision of social services in order to facilitate effective long-term improvements in women’s lives. As local jurisdictions trend toward exploring pretrial services for women, we must consider how the lessons of local community-based alternatives can minimize detention for all.
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