“The circumstances that lead women to commit violent crimes are often complicated by a history of sexual and/or physical trauma….We know, for instance, that almost all who commit violence have first experienced it.”
This is according to a new report, In the Extreme: Women Serving Life Without Parole and Death Sentences in the United States, which also found that “Women serving life sentences have high levels of psychiatric disorders, histories of physical and sexual violence, and previous suicide attempts. One study finds that more than one-third of women serving life sentences have attempted suicide.”
The report is a joint publication of The Sentencing Project, National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and the Cornell University Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, which together in 2020 formed the Alice Project.
There are 51 women on death row in 15 states. California has the highest number by far, with 23; Texas is the next highest with six. “It is notable that in all states with a high count of women serving LWOP [life without parole], there is at least one woman on death row as well,” according to the report.
The study also found that the number of women sentenced to death in the US peaked in 1990, and has declined since. But the number of women sentenced to LWOP didn’t peak until 2012 (48 new sentences). As a result, “The cumulative nature of death-in-prison sentences means there were more women serving LWOP in 2020 than ever recorded,” and those women — approximately 2,000 of them — “can expect to die in prison.”
What makes these statistics even more troubling is that most of the women sentenced to death or LWOP were in their early to mid-30s at the time of the offense. And two women sentenced to death, one in Tennessee, the other in California, were 18 at the time of the crime. In another case, a woman sentenced to life without parole was 14 at the time of the murder.
And while it’s hard to understand a system that would sentence teenagers to death or life without parole, the report attributes “allegedly gender-neutral sentencing policies, such as mandatory minimums” as the primary flaw in the system. These policies don’t distinguish the difference in involvement between the primary and minor participants, which places “women at an extreme legal disadvantage.” They cite as an example “sentencing laws [that] require the same punishment regardless of a defendant’s role in the crime” even though women are often minor players in a violent crime, “such as being a getaway driver.”
The report concludes that attempts to reform extreme sentencing should be aware of the “nuanced life experiences of women in prison…. Their experience of violence — both as victims and as perpetrators — is distinct from the experiences of men.” And the problem is a system that “does not acknowledge these important differences.”