Utah Continues Reckless Efforts to Lock Up Pregnant Women

Lynn Paltrow

Comforted by the fact that the Utah legislature "revised" the bill on miscarriages?  Don't be.  Its main purpose is not to advance a "culture of life," but to advance laws that permit imprisonment of pregnant women.

On Thursday, a Utah legislator withdrew a bill that would have allowed sentences of up to life in prison for a woman who experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth as a result of her “reckless” behavior. This move has been attributed to a “firestorm” of opposition.  Almost immediately, however, Utah legislators revised the bill to exempt women who commit reckless acts but to permit the prosecution of women who commit “knowing” acts that may result in stillbirths and miscarriages from the earliest stages of pregnancy.

What does this mean? Under this bill, pregnant women who “know” that their cancer medications or other prescription medications could risk harm or cause pregnancy loss could still be arrested. Pregnant women who stay with abusive husbands who they “know” to be angry about the pregnancy could still be arrested under this law. Pregnant women who continue working in jobs they “know” pose hazards to their pregnancies could still be arrested under the law. And even pregnant women who “know” from reading the side of their cigarette packages that smoking is hazardous to their pregnancies could be arrested under this law.

Representative Wimmer, the bill’s sponsor, has assured critics that the bill would only be applied “in the most glaring of cases.” But whatever his intention, cases from around the country demonstrate that once law enforcement officials have the discretion to arrest, and judges have the opportunity to interpret the law, legislators no longer have control. In fact there have already been cases where government officials seeking to protect the “unborn” have sought to keep pregnant women from obtaining cancer treatment.

Moreover, sending the message that what women “know” and do while pregnant may be a crime also influences how doctors and nurses treat pregnant women.  They become less likely to help women and more likely to judge them.  In Iowa, it was a health care provider who called the police when a distraught pregnant woman sought help after she fell down a flight of stairs. The young woman was arrested for “attempted feticide.” The police eventually withdrew the charge but only after this young mother had been taken into custody, spent several days in jail and several weeks terrified about what was going to happen next.

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If the Utah bill becomes law, a pregnant woman whose health care provider reports her to the police will not be comforted by the fact that, eventually, someone might decide that her actions were merely “reckless” and not “knowing.”

Some supporters of the bill would claim that this bill is really just about punishing women who intentionally seek to “self-abort.” For people who profoundly oppose abortion, it seems logical that legislation could be carefully crafted to distinguish between pregnant women who seek to terminate their pregnancies and those who do not. Criminal laws, however, depend on application of intent standards and are enforced by police officers and prosecutors who have extraordinary discretion in deciding who will and will not be arrested. Because everything a pregnant woman does or does not do can affect pregnancy outcome, it is hard to come up with an example of a law that could be applied only to women who “truly” intend to end their pregnancies while ensuring that pregnant women who do not intend to terminate their pregnancies or risk harm to their fetuses are protected from police investigation, interrogation, arrest, and prosecution.

Even if this Utah bill were carefully crafted (and it is not), its main purpose clearly is not to advance a culture of life, but rather to advance laws that permit imprisonment of pregnant women. The description of the bill explains its purpose as removing  “prohibitions against prosecution” of women. In other words – Utah apparently aspires to be the first state to admit that the purpose of an anti-abortion law is not to stop doctors from performing abortions, but to lock-up women who have them.

In fact, this bill was created out of frustration that no law existed that could be used to imprison a 17-year-old girl. According to its sponsor, Utah’s HB 462 was passed to respond to a case in which a desperate a pregnant teenager hired someone to attack her and cause her to lose the pregnancy. It should be clear, however, that any young woman who is desperate enough to invite violence against her – violence that could have caused her own death — is not going to be deterred by this law.

Imprisoning this teenager who survived and gave birth to a healthy baby would cost taxpayers approximately $30,000 a year. If the real purpose of the law were to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, the state could invest, for example, in Backline, an organization that could provide non-judgmental counseling to women struggling with their pregnancies.

The real purpose of the Utah bill, however, is to make it possible to police pregnant women and to imprison them as murderers.  That deserves a firestorm of opposition as well.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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