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Extreme Sentences Disproportionately Impact and Harm Black Women

Erica Sheppard, right, with Sister Helen Prejean. Image courtesy Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide

by Trevariana Mason

In 2020, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute partnered with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and The Sentencing Project to co-lead the Alice Project, an initiative to end the extreme punishment of women in the US and globally. We aim to build a coalition of advocates, researchers, activists and scholars working to eliminate gender discrimination in extreme sentencing. Through research, advocacy, training, and legal representation, the Alice Project illuminates how gender bias is weaponized to justify unconscionably harsh prison sentences, especially for cis- and trangender Black women, and how trauma and often sexual violence compel women into situations that place them at risk of incarceration. Tomorrow, the Alice Project is hosting its 2nd Annual Convening of the Coalition to End Extreme Sentencing for Women: Building the Alice Network and Taking Action.

More than 6,600 women—one of every 15 women in prison—are serving a sentence of life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences of 50 years or more, and 52 women are currently on death row, according to a new report from the Alice Project. Many of these women are Black. In Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Mississippi, Black women represent more than 50% of women serving life sentences. In California, one out of every 4 women serving a life sentence is Black.

Black women need access to healing, not punishment

More than 26% of people arrested are Black—more than double our share of the total general population. And although there is much data and research about this, most of it focuses on the experiences of Black men. But given that in recent decades the incarceration rates of Black women have doubled the pace of Black men, it’s critical that we examine more closely the experiences of Black women and the criminal legal system, particularly Black women who are serving extreme sentences, as they are often overlooked.

Black women account for roughly 13% of the general population yet account for 29% of incarcerated women. Between 2008 and 2020 there was a 2% increase in the number of women imprisoned for a violent crime, but a 20% increase in the number of women serving a life sentence and a 43% increase in women serving a life without parole (LWOP) sentence. Black women account for 1/3 of women serving life sentences and virtual life sentences in the US. One of every 39 Black women in prison is serving life without parole (compared to one of every 59 imprisoned white women). As of 2020 Black women account for 25% of the women on death row and are confined in the following states: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas.

Although there is limited data about this group of women, we know that mental illness and experiences with intimate partner violence and gender-based violence are common among incarcerated women. Black women are vulnerable to experiencing violence, especially intimate partner violence—Black women are almost 3 times more likely to die at the hands of a current or ex-partner than members of other racial backgrounds. We have less access to crisis intervention programs and are more likely to distrust the police, putting us more at risk of intimate partner violence, other violence, and criminalization. Black women are arrested and incarcerated more often because Black women's survival strategies are criminalized, including self-defense or being forced to engage in illegal activities by intimate partners or others who have harmed them physically and emotionally.

Once Black women are involved in the criminal legal system, we know that system actors (such as prosecutors, judges, etc.) are more likely to treat crimes as "violent" when the crimes are committed by Black people. There is less leniency for Black women who face the burden of extreme sentences, especially when compared to white women. All of this leads to harsher sentences.

The Case of Erica Sheppard

Erica Sheppard is a 48-year-old Black woman who has been sentenced to die in Texas. But long before she was incarcerated, Erica Sheppard spent much of her childhood neglected and witnessing her parents’ alcoholism and domestic violence. Her family was poor, and with child abuse, violence, and neglect as her foundation, Erica was vulnerable to repeated victimization. By the time she was 19 she had been raped multiple times. Only one month before the crime for which she was sentenced to death, she called the police for help after her partner repeatedly beat her, held a gun to her face and threatened to kill her. The police did nothing. Then, she was coerced into participating in a robbery by a man who killed a woman in the process.

During her 1995 trial, Erica’s lawyer was unprepared and failed to present her past trauma and experiences that had deeply impacted her mental health throughout her life. The jury that sentenced her to death was unaware of her past trauma and its full impact on her mental health. Although she had no criminal record, prosecutors argued that she deserved to die--consistent with their record of seeking the death penalty for Black defendants accused of killing white women. Erica is now physically disabled, and her death sentence, with its isolation and lack of adequate mental health services, has continued to perpetuate the trauma and harm that she spent so much of her childhood and teenage years struggling with.

Erica has now been on death row for 26 years—more than half of her entire life. Our partners at the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide are working alongside her attorney to get her clemency.

We can end extreme sentencing

The overwhelming majority of Black women who come in contact with the criminal legal system have experienced deep trauma and harm in their lives. There are many Black women who are behind bars because they have been failed by people they should have been able to trust and systems that should have supported them.

Criminalization and incarceration cause more trauma and do not help people to heal or increase public safety. And extreme sentences exacerbate this. Instead of perpetuating the cycles of trauma and harm, we can and should truly protect our communities by investing in the livelihood of community members. Specifically, we must:

  • Eliminate the systemic oppression embedded at the core of policies that govern the systems—such as child protective services, public assistance, housing authorities, criminal legal system, and others—that often fail and inflict harm on Black women and girls.

  • Advocate for expanding access to services for survivors of gender-based violence by detaching services from prosecutors’ offices and elevating culturally-affirming services led by directly impacted Black women.

  • Push for legislation, such as the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in New York, which requires judges and prosecutors to recognize family violence as a mitigating factor, reducing a person’s culpability and, therefore, warranting a lesser sentence.

Get involved

One simple and meaningful way to start is to send words of encouragement and support to Erica Sheppard. Click here to send a message to Erica.

You can also sign on to the Alice Project’s Joint Statement of Principles & Action to demonstrate your commitment to ending the extreme punishment of women.


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