Monday numbers: A closer look at how Buncombe County women are criminalized for poverty and substance use

By: - November 21, 2022 6:00 am

Photo: Igor VershinskyiStock

A new study finds authorities rely on police and jails to address low-level charges that don’t threaten public safety.

Drug abuse and violence are experiences commonly shared among the women detained at the Buncombe County Jail, according to a study released last week by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Of the 40 women surveyed in the Buncombe County Detention Center in September 2021, all but one said they struggled with drugs or alcohol use. All but two said they were survivors of some form of violence, including domestic assault or physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

“I’ve been here my whole entire life. There’s a lot of resources for a lot of different things if you’re willing to take ’em,” one woman told the researchers. “But there are some things, like, bein’ a[n] addict, they do look down on and make you feel tiny or take that and run with it, like, for example, when you go to jail, they look at addicts differently I feel like… Bein’ an addict they definitely treat you like shit because they don’t see that it’s [a] disease.”

The study includes jail data from January 2017 to April 2021, as well as information gleaned from surveys of 40 incarcerated women and interviews with 21 women via video calls. 

In uncovering the paths that led to women’s incarceration in the county detention center, researchers concluded that many of them were there because their poverty had been criminalized. More than a fifth of women who were admitted to the jail in 2020 were charged with a property crime, like larceny, burglary and trespassing, low-level charges that the study’s authors contend can be rooted in surviving the pressures of poverty. 

Meanwhile, over 16% were there for drug violations, and another 11% were there for driving under the influence. Less than 3% were locked up for what researchers described as “violent crime against person.” 

That criminalization of poverty resulted in a revolving door in which almost two-thirds of women surveyed had been jailed at some other point between January 2017 and March 2021.

Most of those who were incarcerated in 2020 hadn’t even been convicted of a crime. More than two-thirds of women on average were jailed pretrial; fewer than 10% were serving a sentence. 

Many could go home if they had the money, but they remained jailed because they couldn’t afford to post bail. 

Average bond amounts for women jailed in the county have increased over the years. In 2017, the average bond was $8,168. In 2020, it was $10,152. Those who don’t have the money to bond out are left with a difficult choice: Plead guilty or stay in jail. One woman told researchers there have been times where she’d stayed locked up because couldn’t come up with $100 to bond out. She didn’t have the cash, and neither did any of the people she knew.

“Most of them are struggling,” she said.

Of the people Vera interviewed who had bail set in their cases, 19 women could not afford to post bond. Three had family or friends who posted for them, while two used a bail bond service. 

The study encompasses the experiences of people who were jailed, not those who posted bond and went home, were released on a promise to appear on an unsecured bond, or who were released because of a diversionary program. In other words, the data was about who was in jail, not who had gone home. But the report still found that high bonds of $10,000 or more were being set not only for women charged with violent crimes, but also for women charged with drug violations or larceny. 

Incarcerating women is becoming more common in Buncombe County, researchers found. The women’s jail incarceration rate in Buncombe County increased tenfold between 1970 and 2019, even faster than the growth of men’s incarceration.

Researchers proposed an array of recommendations to shift the resources, policies and practices of the county jail from an emphasis on punishment to one that supports the health and well-being of the marginalized women who wind up behind bars. The suggestions are wide-ranging, dealing with six challenges identified by their research: criminalization of poverty, bail, community supervision, substance use, jail conditions and costs, and interagency coordination and communication. 

The proposals include expanding housing availability and creating a policy where prosecutors decline to prosecute low-level charges, expanding pretrial release practices used earlier in the COVID era that don’t require money to bond out, not jailing people for violating the terms of their probation or parole supervision and improving conditions in the jail so incarcerated women are not so isolated. 

The report also advocates for changes in state law to decriminalize drug possession, and the expansion of access to substance abuse treatment within the community. 

Drug treatment programs were the most common suggestion incarcerated women had when asked what programs should be offered at the jail. One woman suggested that just using tablet computers to attend Zoom group therapy meetings would suffice. 

“We’re all addicts in here,” she said. “Any kind of therapy offered would be great.”

Here are other key takeaways from the report, which can be viewed in its entirety here. For a fact sheet that breaks down findings and recommendations, click here.  

95% – Percentage of women in jail who had survived some form of victimization, like domestic violence or sexual assault

97.5% – Percentage of women who reported a current or past dependency on drugs or alcohol

68% – Percentage of women surveyed who have been diagnosed with a mental illness

54 – Average number of women in jail for the first five months of 2022

14% – Percentage of women in the county jail who are Black

6% – Percentage of women in the county who are Black

20% – Percentage of women jailed on an average day in 2020 for a violation of parole, probation or pretrial supervision

75% – Percentage of women surveyed who had been booked into jail before

35% – Percentage of women surveyed who had been admitted to jail seven times or more

16% – Percentage of bookings at the women’s jail due to a drug-related charge in April 2021

9% –  Percentage in in January 2017

21% – Percentage of women’s jail bookings in 2020 for property-related charges, such as theft or trespassing

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.