Socio-Political Sentencing Reform Movements in 21st Century California: An analysis of gender injustice within the sentencing code
Sentencing reform has been the subject of much debate in the 21st century and has resulted in a great deal of consternation in state and federal systems of government (Chesney-Lind, 2012). The public does not view incarceration as an important topic needing attention or requiring change, which makes invisible the needs and histories of prisoners as a consequence of not addressing them (Connor, 2001). Through an analysis of the spectrum of women’s crime, ranging from non-violent drug trafficking to homicide, I conclude within this paper that the criminal justice system was written as a male-oriented code of addressing crime, which has contributed to women being made into easier targets for arrest and female imprisonment at increasing rates for longer lengths of time.
In the last decade, California’s imprisoned population of women has increased by nearly 400% (Chesney-Lind, 2012). The focus of this thesis is to discuss the treatment—or lack thereof—of women within California’s criminal justice system and sentencing laws. By exploring its historical approach to two criminal actions related to women, the Three Strikes law (including non-violent drug crimes) and the absence of laws accounting for experiences of female victims of domestic violence who killed their abusers, I explore how California’s criminal code has marginalized women, and present a summary of the adverse effects brought about by the gender invisibility that is endemic within sentencing policies and practice. I also discuss recent attempted and successful reforms related to these issues, which evidence a shift toward social dialogue on sentencing aiming to address gender inequity in the sentencing code. These reforms were the result of activism; organizations, academics and individuals successfully raised awareness regarding excessive and undue sentencing of women and compelled action by the legislature.
By method of a feminist analysis of these histories, I explore these two pertinent issues in California; both are related to women who, under harsh sentencing laws, were incarcerated under the state’s male-focused legislation. Responses to the inequalities found in these laws included attempts toward both visibility for women and reform related to sentencing. I analyze the ontology of sentencing reform as it relates to activism in order to discuss the implications of further criminal code legislation, as well as the implications of the 2012 reforms in practice. Through the paper, I focus upon how women have become a target of arrest and long sentences not because they are strategically arrested to equalize their representation behind bars, but because the “tough on crime” framework in the criminal code cast a wide and fixed net that incarcerated increasingly more women following the codification of both mandatory minimums and a male-oriented approach to sentencing (Chesney-Lind et. al, 2012).