Opinion: To Truly Reform Criminal Justice, Women Need More Access to Diversion Programs



The Philadelphia Inquirer: Tracie Johnson - March 8, 2021


Growing up in Philadelphia, I witnessed the loving, hard-working, skilled women in my family and neighborhood struggle to secure employment and care for their families because of their criminal records. These women were capable of running their own beauty salons, daycares, or home care agencies. However, they were locked out of these opportunities because of their criminal records. As an attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), I now advocate for women and girls with records to be able to overcome barriers to employment.


People with criminal records generally experience unemployment at five times the rate of the population as a whole. They are also shut out of housing and educational opportunities. With more and more women serving as head of their households, their families are particularly impacted by the pervasive use of criminal records in hiring decisions. Over two-thirds of incarcerated women are also mothers, and many are the sole wage-earners for their families. If women are denied the opportunity to further their education or secure gainful and meaningful employment because of their records, we entrap entire families in poverty, possibly for generations.


Despite all of this, historically, reentry and criminal justice reform efforts are focused on men. Diversion programs are no exception. Diversion programs divert individuals who come into contact with the justice system away from traditional court trial and sentencing proceedings, instead requiring participation in community service, treatment, and other programming aimed at rehabilitation. Often when programs are completed, the cases can then be expunged, which allows people who have been incarcerated to move forward with their lives.


Women must have better access to these programs, and the programs must be designed for women to be able to complete them successfully. As part of the Incarcerated Women’s Working Group, I recently interviewed women who have been incarcerated to hear directly from them what they would have needed to have better outcomes and their experienced and recommendations are outlined a new report.


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