Females are still a small minority in Oregon’s prison population—8 percent. But it’s the fastest-growing group in the penal system. Why? It’s not, despite what many believe, because of Measure 11, the 1994 citizens’ initiative that voters passed to establish mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes.
Instead, it’s because the Oregon Legislature passed a number of laws over the past 15 years focusing on nonviolent crimes.
- In 1996, the Legislature passed a bill that sent repeat property offenders to prison. Prior to 1996, repeat property offenders were typically given probation.
- In 1999, the Legislature passed a bill that included “identity theft” as a property crime. Identity theft was only becoming an issue at the time, but within a few years, thanks to the growth of the Internet and availability of credit cards, it became a frequent crime.
- In 2001, the Legislature created a broader definition of “repeat offenders” for property crimes, resulting in more people being sent to prison rather than placed on probation.
Because women commit property crimes at very high rates compared to other crimes, those changes created a spike in the number of women going to prison.
According to Department of Corrections data, roughly the same number of women commit felony property crimes every year, but during the past decade, more have gone to prison for them.
Only 6.5 percent of women convicted of felony property crimes in 2000 went to prison. But in 2011, 18.6 percent of them did. (That’s slightly lower than the peak of 21.7 percent in 2010.)
Eric Mellgren, a retired Medford police chief and Southern Oregon University criminology professor, says ID theft goes hand-in-hand with meth addiction, and it’s popular with women because it’s a relatively safe crime.
“There is very little physical risk,” he says. “You’re not going to get attacked by a large dog or get shot by a homeowner. Women might tend to do [ID theft] rather than commit a violent crime.”
It’s also lucrative. “One good ID thief can steal as much online as all the burglars and robbers in Medford in a year,” Mellgren says.
Oregon isn’t alone in this trend. Susan Phillips, a research analyst with the Sentencing Project—a national research and advocacy group—says putting more women in prison for property crimes is a national trend.
According to the Sentencing Project, the number of women in prisons nationwide has increased 400 percent since 1985, double the growth rate for men.
“You’re not leading the country in this by any means,” Phillips says. “[Oregon] isn’t the craziest state in these things by far.”
But the feminization of this country’s prison system is unique. The United States imprisons more women per capita and more women as a proportion of all inmates than any other major developed country in the world, according to data collected by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Kevin Mannix is a former state representative and ex-chair of Oregon’s Republican Party. He has run unsuccessfully for governor, attorney general and Congress, but he is best known as the father of Measure 11, the aforementioned initiative that put more violent criminals behind bars. He is also the reason why, in 2012, the number of women entering prison is expected to grow, creating concerns at Coffee Creek, which has room for about only 100 more inmates.
Four years ago, Mannix gathered enough signatures to put Measure 61 on the ballot, which sought to create mandatory minimum sentences not for violent offenders, but for repeat property and drug offenders.
The Oregon Legislature was so concerned about the consequences of Mannix’s measure—namely, building more prisons—that it referred to voters a competing measure that also established minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes but wasn’t so tough as Mannix’s measure.
Measure 57, the alternative to Mannix’s 61, passed in November 2008 but only went into effect this January.
Until the start of 2012, an ID-theft conviction would earn someone at least 13 months in prison. Now, ID theft carries a minimum sentence of 18 months.
Mannix says he never considered how his ideas would impact women. “It did not come up,” he concedes.
But he says prison could be good for some women: “There could be a chance to change someone’s life by pulling them out of the corrosive environment they were part of.”
Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), one of two Democrats who sponsored House Bill 3057 in 1999—making identity theft a property crime that could carry a prison sentence—says no one thought about gender at the time.
“I don’t remember us having any data in front of us as to the impact on either gender,” he says. “I think anyone who has been a victim of identity theft wants anyone who is committing those offenses to be held accountable, whether they’re men or women.”
For all the issues that accompany female inmates—mental illness, razors, relationship needs, sanitary pads—the most profound is motherhood. More than 75 percent of the inmates at Coffee Creek have children, and some are pregnant when they enter the prison. Inmates had 16 babies last year, down from 21 in 2010.
This creates indirect costs for the state: foster care. Most children live with their mothers, so they must go somewhere when their moms go to prison.
Gene Evans, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says it costs the state about $2,000 per month to have a child in foster care. The average stay is about 15 months, which means each stay costs taxpayers about $30,000—the same as one year in prison.
Among Dawn Pearson’s four children, one of them lives in a foster home. Frankie, 16, looks like a smaller version of her mother, with tomato-red fingernails and a big gray sweatshirt whose cuffs she pulls over her hands.
Frankie is an expensive teenager. She has drug and anger problems and requires a drug support group, lawyer, regular urinalysis tests, special classes at school and a caseworker—all paid for by taxpayers.
If this is an argument for keeping women out of prison, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael McShane doesn’t buy it, particularly for longtime meth addicts.
He says sometimes motherhood can keep a woman out of prison. DHS pays for mothers to go through drug treatment, so judges sometimes allow women who are unlikely to reoffend to stay on probation and go to rehab.
Often, however, meth trumps motherhood.
McShane says he has seen women addicted to meth starve and neglect their children, but then insist they stole credit cards to feed them.
“No,” he says. “You were buying meth.”
In Dawn Pearson’s case, she stole the credit card of her daughter’s principal only 18 months after ending her first, five-year stay at Coffee Creek for identity theft and meth offenses. After she got out, she began using drugs again.
That’s the reality of Coffee Creek. Women are likely to reoffend because their crimes are so connected to their addictions, and for many of them, probation doesn’t work.
“Usually if we’re looking at sending women to prison, they’ve burned through the programs here,” McShane says.
He opposes mandatory minimum sentences and would like to preserve more judicial discretion. But he says many of these women need to go to prison.
“Sometimes we’re worried that a person’s going to kill themselves if we don’t send them to prison,” he says.
McShane says prison is often the only way to get addicts into drug treatment, which is the only way to make them stop offending. He says that’s largely because local drug treatment programs have been cut and also because addicts are required to get treatment in prison. He says they need to spend at least two years in prison to make real progress.
Though it’s controversial to say, McShane maintains that a woman who simply will not stop breaking the law, to whom drugs have become more important than her children, the choice is clear—Coffee Creek.
“If they’re there,” he says, “it’s because no one trusts they can be let out in the community.”
The Woman on Death Row
One woman at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility waits on death row.
Angela Darlene McAnulty, 43, was convicted in February 2011 of aggravated murder in Lane County Circuit Court after her 15-year-old daughter, Jeanette Maples, was found dead in their Eugene home shortly before Christmas 2009.
Witnesses said McAnulty had beaten, starved and tortured her daughter while favoring her other children, a younger girl and boy. They said she kept Jeanette out of school and locked in a room where the girl slept on a piece of cardboard.
Police said Jeanette was so emaciated and her growth so stunted when they found her body that they didn’t believe she was 15.
McAnulty’s crime landed her in a modified solitary confinement cell at Coffee Creek. She can exercise and work, but must do it alone. She eats alone, but there are a few inmates with whom she plays cards and chats with behind a glass partition so she, according to Coffee Creek officials, can “preserve her social skills.”
She is starting the appeals process on her death sentence.