War on Drugs Lands More Women in Jail

THE number of women in the nation's jails more than doubled during the 1980s war on drugs, shows a new Justice Department survey released yesterday.

During the peak years of the crack-cocaine epidemic and the corresponding increase in drug enforcement operations between 1983 and 1989, the total population of the nation's local jails increased by 75 percent.

But women were swept into local jails at twice that rate, according to figures released in "Women in Jail, 1989," a special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Though women still account for less than 10 percent of the nation's jail population, their numbers moved from 16,000 in 1983, to 37,000 in 1989. (The jail system includes those inmates held by local government pending adjudication, or detained after adjudication for sentences of a year or less.)

Experts in crime and public affairs caution that while the raw numbers seem dramatic, they should be tempered by two factors: The relatively low proportion of women in jails to begin with and the increased national emphasis on arresting drug users and sellers.

The types of crime women tend to be involved in are much more limited than those of men, and drug abuse is one of the crimes women are as likely as men to be involved in, explains Alfred Blumstein, dean of the school of urban and public affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University. So when law enforcement focuses on drug arrests, it stands to reason that the proportion of women in jail would grow faster than that of men, he says.

Even so, he and other experts agree, the statistics about women are an indicator of the intensity of growth in the drug problem.

Perhaps the most "surprising" element in the survey is that women showed a higher frequency of drug abuse than their male counterparts, says Tracy Snell, the BJS statistician who wrote the report.

More than a third of female inmates in 1989 were in jail for a drug offense, up from 1 in 8 in 1983, she says. And women inmates were twice as likely as male inmates to report having used a major illegal drug like heroin, cocaine, PCP or LSD daily in the month prior to arrest.

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