UHLC panelists agree women in criminal justice system face unique challenges

Amber Brown, right, vice-president of the Anthony Graves Foundation, introduces a UH Law Center panel discussion on women and the criminal justice system with Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, left; former Harris County prosecutor Ramona Franklin; UHLC Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson; and former Harris County prosecutor Rachel Hooper.

April 23, 2015 - Women who intersect with the criminal justice system – whether as defendants, inmates, victims, family members, or attorneys – face gender-specific issues that warrant closer attention, participants agreed in a recent University of Houston Law Center discussion.

The April 9 event, called “Orange is the New Black: Women and the Criminal Justice System,” brought together a prosecutor-turned-law professor, two former prosecutors now in private practice, advocates, and ordinary citizens in a wide-ranging discussion of the system.

Jay Jenkins, Harris County project attorney for the Austin-based advocacy group Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, began by outlining many of the statistics involving women incarcerated in the state.

“In Harris County, the small percentage of women that are actually incarcerated don’t rate very high on the political scale for elected officials and stakeholders,” Jenkins said. “But they are part of the population and their perspective is valuable.”

Referring to an earlier presentation at the Law Center by Charles E. Samuels, Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Jenkins noted that in the federal system there are 14,000 women inmates, approximately 6 percent of the total population.

In Texas, Jenkins said, there are about 12,000 women in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for felonies, state jail felonies, or in a felony substance abuse program. That makes up about 8,000 or 9,000 of the 150,000 people in Texas that are incarcerated.

Jenkins said a survey of women in TDCJ custody found that more than 50 percent of respondents came from households with total annual incomes of $10,000 or less in the year they were incarcerated. A large percentage of the remaining inmates came from households earning $30,000 or less.

“You’re looking at a very low-income population,” Jenkins said, with low rates of higher education and high rates of unemployment and mental health conditions.  Large, sometimes overwhelming, percentages of respondents reported suffering from sexual abuse or domestic violence or both during their childhoods, he added.

Because women make up a small portion of the total inmate population, Jenkins said, solutions and programs should be tailored to meet women’s particular needs.

First, he said, the state should increase access to mental health treatment, victims’ services, and family counseling and assistance before women even become part of the criminal justice system.

Second, for those who are incarcerated, a greater effort needs to be made for gender-specific programming, he said.

And third, there needs to be gender-specific programming to help women inmates successfully reenter society upon their release, including family and employment counseling. After Jenkins’ presentation, a panel of three female former prosecutors discussed issues relating to being on both the defense and prosecution side, as well as problems faced by incarcerated women and the families of crime victims.

The panel included UHLC Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York City prosecutor who is now director of the school’s Criminal Justice Institute; Rachel Hooper, a former Harris County prosecutor and judicial candidate who now practices civil litigation with the firm Baker Hostetler; and Ramona Franklin, also a former Harris County prosecutor and judicial candidate now in private practice.

Also referring to the earlier presentation by Samuels, in which he noted that the federal BOP recently instituted a program allowing children of women inmates to spend one night in prison with their mothers, Thompson said this was “a big accomplishment in the federal system, apparently.”

“The statistics with regard to women are really heartbreaking,” she said, because the majority of women who go into prison are mothers of young children.”

And because many of those children wind up in foster care while their mothers are incarcerated, a federal law that requires states to petition for termination of parental rights after a certain period of time means that those women lose rights to their children after their release, Thompson said.

And when women, many of whom have been the victims of sexual abuse or assault, are incarcerated, they often become victimized again in prison, she said. When they’re released, Thompson said, they often are barred by law from receiving any federal benefits, such as food stamps or educational financial aid, and can be excluded from public housing.

“It’s a really bleak situation,” she said.

Hooper and Franklin, the former Harris County prosecutors, both said they faced unique challenges as women in a traditionally male-dominated office. Franklin, who is black, said the experience was particularly challenging in an office that is largely run by whites.

But both of them, who didn’t initially intend to become prosecutors, said the experience was invaluable to them in their future careers.

All of the panelists said lawyers on both sides of the criminal justice system should do the work necessary to understand defendants’ and victims’ life situations and perspectives.

“You never know when you’re dealing with someone who’s broken. And you never know when you’re being used,” Franklin said. “The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of broken people out there.

“And (lawyers must be able) to convince these people that, yes, your situation is dire, but you still have some power, and here’s how you use it,” she said.

Others who spoke during the event were Kim Ogg, an attorney in private practice who ran unsuccessfully for Harris County District Attorney in 2014, who spoke about an impetus for reform in the way cases are prosecuted and the prison system in Texas; Anthony Graves, a former Texas Death Row inmate who was exonerated in 2010; a former female inmate; and the mother of a young man who was killed.

The event was co-sponsored by the Anthony Graves Foundation and the University of Houston Black Law Students Association.

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