Taking a Bite out of Crime: One AAUW State’s Story

The one consistency that was found in the 1960s analysis of women's prison programs in Pennsylvania was the nonexistence of organized educational or vocational skills programs.

September 25, 2014

Throughout our history, AAUW members have always responded to crises. In the late 1960s, when rates of criminality were rising at an alarming rate, especially among women, members wanted answers to the basic questions: What caused women to commit crime? How were women’s sentences different from men’s? And what were the conditions inside women’s prisons?

One noteworthy project came from the Keystone State. In fall 1967, 54 Pennsylvania branches participated in a survey to collect data on the treatment of women in the county courts and jails. Nearly 500 cases were observed in the AAUW Magistrate Court Observation Project. Rumors had been circulating that judges, in response to a recent crime wave, were handing down unreasonably harsh sentences for relatively minor offenses and that they had abandoned the use of the probation system. Indeed, the AAUW survey results proved these rumors to be true.

Armed with these facts, AAUW members developed a larger project at the state level with a broader focus on all phases of the criminal justice system, including incarceration. The project, Criminal Justice for the Female Offender, was chosen for statewide implementation at the 1968 AAUW of Pennsylvania convention. Led by Margery Velimesis, AAUW members visited correctional facilities and not only surveyed conditions in the jails but also gathered data on the nature of the crimes committed by women and the typical sentences for such crimes.

Observers noted that most women were incarcerated for very minor, nonviolent offenses associated with poverty, drugs, or alcohol. It was established that only about 5 percent of incarcerated women in the state had committed offenses that warranted longer sentences in more secure facilities.

In addition, they found few programs in place to assist women in addressing the problems that got them there in the first place. In an October 1969 issue of the AAUW Journal, Velimesis wrote, “The one consistency in programs that was found was the nonexistence of organized educational or vocational skills programs.” Most interaction with the women was punitive, rather than rehabilitative, in nature.

The Time Is Now: Watch a Film from 1971 on AAUW of Pennsylvania’s Project

Watch video on YouTube.

This film was produced for the kickoff of the Centennial Fund Campaign and initially viewed at the AAUW National Convention in Dallas, Texas, in 1971. In the footage, two state projects, the Pennsylvania project on women offenders and the Delaware project on juvenile justice, are featured. The narrator is Alice Beeman, then AAUW’s general director.

Beeman describes in detail the projects and their successful results. Both state projects, among others, are excellent examples of those that AAUW states undertook in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These projects were designed to address societal problems such as crime, pollution, and poverty, all of which were perceived to be growing at a rapid pace and thus causing alarm throughout communities across America.

Under Velimesis’ direction, AAUW members drafted a series of recommendations for submission to the Pennsylvania attorney general. One was the implementation of community treatment centers, rather than prisons, for nonviolent female offenders. These residential units would serve up to 25 women, and residents would be given opportunities for job training, interaction, counseling, treatment for addictions, and information on child rearing. It is important to note that the ideas that inmates should have a chance to rebuild their lives and that these initiatives would have a positive effect on recidivism rates were very progressive at the time.

AAUW members recognized that incarceration for minor offenses was very often a continuation of a cycle of poverty. Even Velimesis stated, “It is hoped that AAUW’s information and concern will lead others in the community to also work for establishment of programs and services needed by people who are poor as well as those presently handled by the police and the courts.”

The Pennsylvania project had a successful outcome. By the end of 1970, the attorney general adopted the major AAUW recommendations for community treatment centers, an entirely new, progressive system for treating women offenders.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   September 25, 2014

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