New Vera Institute of Justice report emphasizes need for community-based alternatives to support, not punish, women

Press release from the Vera Institute of Justice:

Asheville, NC (November 16, 2022) – The Vera Institute of Justice today released Women’s Pathways Into and Out of Jail in Buncombe County. The report examines how women in Buncombe County are criminalized for being poor and using or possessing drugs, and they are jailed for non-serious, low-level offenses that do not pose a risk to public safety.

Poverty is criminalized when state and local policies trap people in the criminal legal system for trying to survive. In 2020, the most serious charges facing women who were jailed in Buncombe County were frequently property-related (for example, theft and trespassing) and drug-related (for example, drug or drug paraphernalia possession). Many of these charges stem from the pressures of poverty, such as being arrested for trespassing after sleeping outside, stealing food to survive, or using drugs and alcohol in public. The effects are compounded by a system that takes money out of people’s pockets with the imposition of money bail, fines, fees, and other costs.

The women that the Vera Institute of Justice surveyed underscored that both poverty and exposure to abuse and harm were among the reasons they had been arrested and caught in a cycle of incarceration and supervision. At least 70 percent of the women had survived some form of violence, and 90 percent reported surviving more than one form of victimization. Currently and formerly jailed women in Buncombe County raised concerns that most officials in the local criminal legal system—including police, judges, jail staff, probation officers, and lawyers—did not understand or relate to the circumstances that led to their incarceration.

Addressing the causes and consequences of women’s incarceration has become increasingly urgent over the past several decades. The women’s jail incarceration rate in Buncombe County increased tenfold from 1970 to 2019, far outpacing the growth of men’s incarceration in the county. Although the number of women in the Buncombe County Detention Center dropped in response to the early spread of COVID-19, the population has since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.  The report provides policy recommendations for state and local policymakers, courts, and elected prosecutors.

Recommendations include:

  • expand on and codify COVID-era pretrial release practices, eliminate money bail, and invest in community-based supports and services;
  • eliminate supervision conditions that do not uphold public safety or address women’s needs; and
  • advocate for changes to state laws and local practices to decriminalize drug possession, and expand access to substance use treatment in the community.

“Vera’s research on Buncombe County underscores how women are further harmed by a justice system that will never be equipped to meet their underlying needs,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of national jail reduction efforts at the Vera Institute of Justice. “Poor and working-class women dealing with the effects of poverty, substance abuse, harm, and violence are imprisoned and further impoverished by the money bail system and other fines, fees, and costs. The County’s openness to charting a new course toward a system that is grounded in both human dignity and community safety presents an opportunity to keep women out of the criminal legal system and ensure healthier, more just communities.”

“Buncombe County welcomes the research and insight into the growth in the number of women in our local jail,” said DK Wesley, assistant county manager and chair of the Justice Resource Advisory Council. “The County acknowledges that there are women in the jail for reasons such as inability to pay bail and difficulty meeting conditions of supervision. The County is committed to partnering with the community and the courts to evaluate and address, where applicable, the recommendations laid out in the report. The County is also committed to improving interagency coordination and communication so that women intertwined in the legal system better understand their court cases and the process.”

To mark the release of this report and further discuss findings, the County’s Safety and Justice Challenge Community Engagement Workgroup will hold a community forum titled “Justice Involved Women in Buncombe County: Pathways Into and Out of Jail” at 6:00 p.m. on December 6, 2022, at 200 College Street (1st floor conference room), Asheville. Both press and community members are invited to attend by RSVPing to A virtual option will be available.

The Women’s Pathways Into and Out of Jail in Buncombe County report and summary fact sheet can be found here.

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