Why is the incarceration rate for American women rising so fast?
In the past decade, there’s been a growing awareness of mass incarceration and the damage it’s wreaked, above all on poor communities of color. This has sparked much-needed bipartisan efforts—albeit too little, too late—to lower America’s incarcerated population.
But a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that since the 1970s, the number of women held in jail has grown far faster than that of men (the report differentiates between prison and jail, which traditionally holds inmates pre-trial).
Any discussion of incarceration and gender should note that men are still locked up at far higher rates than women—for example, 93 percent of people in US federal prisons are men, as are a large majority in jails.
But the tendency of mainstream discourse to focus exclusively on male incarceration is still inexcusable, given the significant and fast-rising population of incarcerated women.
According to the report, three-quarters of counties did not have a single woman in jail in the 1970s. Today there are women in jail in almost every county surveyed.” Since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold—from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000— and now accounts for approximately half of all women behind bars in the United States,” the authors note.
Unsurprisingly these women are disproportionality people of color and poor; 80 percent of them are single mothers. Most are charged with low-level offenses, like drug-law violations.
Additionally, many of these women suffer from mental illness and trauma: “86 percent report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, 77 percent report partner violence, and 60 percent report caregiver violence.”
Jails, of course, are a terrible place for someone suffering from mental illness and trauma, in a hundred different ways. The experience might be especially grueling for women, since jails were not designed with their particular needs in mind.
Woman are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by guards, and standard jail procedures like body searches or being forced to shower watched by guards could be hellish. Jails also tend to be sorely lacking in providing for women’s basic needs—from providing adequate supplies of menstrual products to offering decent medical care to pregnant women.
The report places the blame for the massive spike in jailed women on broken-windows policing and the War on Drugs, both of which have swept large numbers low-level offenders into the criminal justice system.
Woman are more likely to be brought in for nonviolent crimes. They’re also more likely to play a peripheral role in, say, illegal drug sales, and so have less leverage to get a plea deal. Those factors, combined with the general haste with which the US criminal justice system incarcerates people, have turned jails into traumatic holding pens for people who are already underprivileged.
“Local jurisdictions should reserve jail incarceration as a last resort for women who are deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety,” the report’s authors conclude. “Instead, they have allowed jails to become stopgap providers of social services, mental health and substance use assessment and treatment, and temporary housing for women caught up in the justice system—a catchall for those who have slipped through the net of community services, if any exist.”