The Pernicious 'War on Drugs' Is Behind America’s Staggeringly High Female Prison Population

Women make up nearly 9% of the U.S. prison population and about a third of them are serving time for drug offenses, according to two recent studies. Moreover, with just over 200,000 women behind bars, U.S. prisons incarcerate a third of all female prisoners worldwide.

According to the latest report on women detainees by the International Center for Prison Studies, some 625,000 women and girls are held in penal institutions throughout the world. This includes remanded (pre-trial) detainees and those who have been sentenced. China, with 84,600 female women in detention (and 5.1 percent of its prison population), is a distant second to the U.S, followed by Russia (59,200), Brazil (35,596) and Thailand (29,175).

The worldwide female prison population has increased more than 16% since the first edition of the study in 2006, and is growing on all five continents, the researchers say. North and South America had the largest percentage increase, at 23%, while European nations had the smallest at 6%.

According to the report females compose 8.8% of the U.S. prison population.

In another study, The Sentencing Project reports that a third of the women who are in U.S. prisons are there for drug offenses, and the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses is increasing at nearly double of the rate for men. The organization says that the so-called war on drugs is behind why more women are being imprisoned today than ever before.

“These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse,” says the prison-reform organization.  “Large-scale women's imprisonment has resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother's incarceration and the loss of family ties.”

A video short, release on YouTube by Brave New Films claims that a significant percentage of women are pregnant while incarcerated, and that some 70% had also been the primary caregivers of at least two children. 

Another report by The Sentencing Project shows that reducing the prison population in some states has not lead to more crime, but actually reduced it.

Profiles of three states that have reduced their prison populations, New York, New Jersey and California, have actually seen their crime rates decline at a faster pace than the national average. Combined, the three states have reduced their prison populations by about 25% between 1999 and 2012, while the state prison population across the nation rose 10%.

While downsizing their prisons, these states have seen their violent crime rates fall at a greater rate than the rest of the nation. New Jersey and New York also saw their property crime rates fall significantly compared to the national average, while California’s reduction was slightly lower. Criminologists say that state governments need to do far more to keep non-violent drug offenders out of the prison system, and to give probationers second chances and sentencing alternatives.

The U.S. Justice Department places the total 2013 prison population at about 1.6 million, a slight increase from 2012. The number of federal prisoners, however, dropped slightly in 2012, but it was offset by an increase of prisoners in state prisons.

See the Brave New Films video on women in prison below:


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