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Women across the Americas are being incarcerated for low-level drug offenses at an alarming rate. In Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, well over 60 percent of each country’s female prison population is incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Total prison populations in Latin America have grown as well; Colombia’s prison population has swelled 300 percentin the last 25 years. The policies that have led to this surge in imprisonment have torn apart families and crippled women’s abilities to find decent, legal employment once they have been released, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, desperation and incarceration.
The imprisonment of mothers and caregivers in particular can have devastating consequences for their families and communities. Many have little or no schooling, live in conditions of poverty, and are often responsible for the care of young and elderly dependents. Though they bear the brunt of unjust policies, these women are rarely threats to society; most are arrested for performing low-level, high-risk tasks, and many have been driven to small-scale drug dealing or transporting drugs as a way to survive poverty or in some cases as a result of coercion by intimate partners.
The Washington Office on Latin America, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Dejusticia, and the OAS Inter-American Commission of Women, in collaboration with Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention of Drugs (ACEID), and Corporación Humanas, are seeking to address the issue of women incarcerated for drug crimes. The sponsoring organizations have convened an international working group of government officials, lawyers, and researchers on women’s and drug policy issues, to advance policies that protect the rights of this vulnerable group and end the unjust criminalization of non-violent drug offenders.