Counting the Drug War's Female Casualties

21 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2003

See all articles by Phyllis Goldfarb

Phyllis Goldfarb

George Washington University Law School

Date Written: July 28, 2003


This article examines national drug policies through the lens of gender. One of the consequences of current drug policies, which focus almost exclusively on punishment, is that women's incarceration rates have risen astronomically and at even higher rates than those of men. A closer look at the underlying factual scenarios of many of these cases reveals that a high percentage of incarcerated women are non-violent first-time offenders who were peripherally involved in drug activity, frequently through a relationship with a principally involved man. Yet most sentencing schemes, including the federal system, enacted during the height of the war on drugs provide limited discretion to adjust for this reality. Women in a relationship with a person engaged in drug activity may suffer penalties not only through accomplice liability but also through the implementation of constructive possession doctrines. Even in the absence of criminal activity, a woman involved with a drug offender may suffer eviction, forfeiture, and the imposition of a greater disproportion of family responsibilities under increasingly harsh conditions.

Women incarcerated for drug offenses are disproportionately the primary caretakers, and often the sole caretakers, of children. Many sentencing schemes, including the federal sentencing guidelines, limit consideration of family circumstances. In light of these realities, incarcerated women experience considerable psychological trauma around issues of bonding, separation, and parenting, yet they receive few services directed to these issues. Consequently, incarceration may carry different meanings for inmates who are primary caretakers of children - a disproportionately female category - than for those who are not primary caretakers.

By elaborating many contexts in which drug war policies have affected women's lives, this article provides an illustration of the mechanisms by which ostensibly gender neutral policies can become instruments of gender bias. Underlying this project is the hope that by counting the particular hardships that the drug war has visited on women, their suffering will begin to count in the minds of policymakers positioned to ameliorate it.

Suggested Citation

Goldfarb, Phyllis, Counting the Drug War's Female Casualties (July 28, 2003). Available at SSRN: or

Phyllis Goldfarb (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202.994.7463 (Phone)

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