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Imprisoned Women Drug Couriers Studied by Criminologist Tracy Huling


February 1995

In a recent article in the journal Criminal Justice, Tracy Huling reports on her research about women drug couriers imprisoned on Riker's Island, New York City's prison island , for state drug smuggling offenses (Tracy Huling, "Women Drug Couriers," Criminal Justice, Winter 1995, p. 15ff).

Huling has been interviewing and collecting information about women drug couriers since 1991. A good portion of the article is spent recounting some of these stories.

She writes that sentencing policies and mandatory minimums are responsible for the unfair and inhumane treatment of some of these women:

 ... sentencing policies that tie sanctions to drug amounts and limit judicial consideration of mitigating factors also may disparately affect women, who tend to play marginal roles in drug trafficking, have little if any prior criminal history, and often are the sole caretakers of young children.

All of the women that she has interviewed have been charged on the state level with possession of four or more ounces of a narcotic drug at JFK Airport in New York City. The drug weight means that these women face a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years to life. Sentencing policies make no exception for these women's particular circumstance, even though, Huling points out 96 percent of women arrested at JFK Airport for drug smuggling have no criminal record. Because most women drug couriers are only slightly involved or have no involvement in the larger drug operation, they cannot turn in accomplices to gain a reduced sentence.

Only 5 percent of the women are convicted at trial because 95 percent plea bargain to a mandatory minimum of three years to life. The law hits Hispanic women the hardest -- while 50 percent of white women and 52 percent of black women were sentenced to prison, 83 percent of Hispanic women charged went to prison.

[Criminal Justice is published by the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice.]