There Are More Women in U.S. Jails Than Ever Before

An unusual thing happened last year: The number of people in U.S. prisons declined. After decades of exponential growth, both the state and federal prison populations dropped slightly, reflecting the steady embrace of policy reforms enacted over the last decade intended to curtail corrections costs.


Yet as prison populations in many states have declined, the number of women in jails has skyrocketed. Since 1970, the female jail population has increased 14 times, surging from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000, according to a report released Wednesday from the Vera Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

“Particularly for women, their interactions with the justice system are often the result of survival efforts,” said Liz Swavola of the Vera Institute of Justice, one of the report’s principal authors. “They are predominantly women of color, and they are overwhelmingly poor.”

Swavola and her collaborators found that the vast majority of women in jail are there for low-level, nonviolent crimes such as drug and property offenses. While 40 percent of jailed men lack full-time employment, 60 percent of women in jail don’t have full-time jobs. Similarly, 30 percent of women in jail rely on public benefits, while the same is true for just 8 percent of jailed men. Of all women in jail, 80 percent are mothers, and they are predominantly single parents, unlike jailed men, the majority of whom are not parenting alone.

Women in jail are also more than twice as likely to be affected by serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression than their male counterparts, according to the report.

As police departments and prosecutors have increasingly focused resources on low-level offenses, heeding the controversial ideology of crime prevention theories such as “broken windows” policing, more women have wound up in jail. Swavola and her coauthors note that cracking down on nonviolent crimes—drug offenses in particular—in the 1980s and 1990s led to the drug possession arrest rate for women tripling, while it doubled for men over the same period.

Some cities are rethinking the tactics that have swept up low-level offenders—men and women alike. In the last two years, New York City and Philadelphia have changed their approaches to marijuana possession, issuing tickets or citations instead of arresting people who possess a small amount of the drug. Both cities have also begun issuing civil citations and fines instead of criminal summonses for certain low-level offenses: In Philadelphia these include disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, and obstructing a passageway, while in New York City they include public urination, park code violations, and public drinking, among others.

“These people don’t belong in the criminal justice system for the most part,” Capt. Francis Healy of the Philadelphia Police Department told TakePart. “The punishment has to match the violation.”

Healy pointed to July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as an early sign that reducing the penalties for certain low-level offenses is helping to keep people out of jail. During demonstrations surrounding the convention, Healy counted 106 people who were issued violation notices rather than being arrested and taken to jail.

The report’s authors also point to Philadelphia’s efforts as an example of how to divert low-level offenders, in particular women, from the jail system. The city has also expanded its pretrial diversion programs in the last four years in an effort to ensure that only the most high-risk people await trial in jail.

Low-level, nonviolent offenders who are eligible for pretrial diversion programs are carefully assessed to figure out what they need to succeed and to prevent future crimes. They are then connected with resources depending on their needs—whether related to substance abuse, domestic violence, or other trauma.

“Rather than treat the surface-level problem, we try to delve into the root cause of what brought them into the criminal justice system,” said Derek Riker, chief of diversion programs at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “We get a better bang for our buck in terms of putting resources toward rehabilitation services instead of [jail] custody.”

In spite of the program’s early success in lowering recidivism rates among participants—for example, only 1 percent of participants in a domestic violence–focused diversion program have reoffended—Riker said the city struggles to meet the needs of everyone coming into the system and in particular, the needs of mothers.

“Sometimes service providers are gender-specific, and there are more resources for men than women,” said Riker. “We often find women want to get help, but the responsibility of children means they don’t have the time to focus on themselves.”

While the report’s authors were able to document the increase of women in jail and point to several factors that drove its growth, their research also uncovered yet another blind spot in criminal justice data collection. Cobbling together often outdated data from national and local jurisdictions posed a challenge.

“Tracking women from arrest to prosecution to incarceration to release can be incredibly difficult, because each of these systems can have incredibly different data collection methods that don’t speak to each other,” said Swavola. “We still don’t have a complete picture of who these women are or why they’re increasingly ending up in jail.”

This article originally appeared on TakePart. Reprinted with permission.

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