Women in criminal justice

Image: American Civil Liberties Union

On Tuesday, a bill was proposed in the Senate that would make it a criminal offense for a woman in North Carolina to use drugs while pregnant. The bill, sponsored by Senator Brent Jackson and Senator Louis Pate, would permit a woman to be charged with assault if she uses an illegal narcotic while pregnant and her child is born addicted to or harmed by the drug.

The problems with this bill are numerous.

First, it is obvious that pregnant women who suffer from a drug dependency are less likely to seek prenatal care when they are threatened with prosecution. Studies have shown that prenatal care substantially improves birth outcomes even for pregnant women who continue to use drugs during their pregnancies.

Second, drug dependency is a recognized medical condition that must be treated with proper medical care. Under the threat of prosecution, pregnant women will be less likely to be forthcoming with their doctors about their drug use which will prevent them from getting the help they need and which could negatively affect both the mother and child.

Third, there is evidence that criminalizing drug use during pregnancy would disproportionately affect minority and low income women. Poor women and women of color are more likely to live in areas where they don’t have access to treatment facilities or proper medical help and therefore more likely to be unable to get the help they need during pregnancy.

The only defense to prosecution provided by the bill is for a woman to enroll in an addiction recovery program prior to the birth of the child, remain in the program after delivery and successfully complete the program. In reality, this is often not a viable option for a pregnant woman.  Many treatment programs won’t accept pregnant women or aren’t set-up to adequately meet their needs. Also, particularly in rural areas, there often aren’t treatment centers close by. If legislature really wants to help pregnant woman overcome drug addictions, they should introduce a bill that would provide easy access to helpful and effective drug treatment centers.

Currently, it appears that Tennessee is the only state to have such a law on the books. (A bill was introduced in Oklahoma this month). A week after the Tennessee law went into effect, a woman was arrested for smoking meth. She is now in county jail and could be incarcerated for up to year. Criminalizing drug use during pregnancy has done nothing to help her overcome her addiction or protect the health of her baby. Instead, the state has just added one more person to criminal justice system.

If the ultimate goal is promote healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, this bill is not the answer.


North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos announced an initiative yesterday to address how mental health and substance abuse is handled across the state, and how best to avoid using emergency rooms and jail cells as regular treatment options.

“We will ask this coalition to assess our existing structure in the state and recommend possible policy changes to help break down the barriers to care for our patients,” Wos said, according to the Associated Press.

But it appears the state agency already assembled a coalition and launched a similar effort two years ago, when DHHS released a comprehensive action plan to lessen behavioral health stays in local emergency rooms.

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