Number of women in jail rising faster than men: What's driving the trend?

Women in jails are now the fastest growing population within the justice system, a new study found this week.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
Mothers watch their children arrive to visit at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, Calif., in 2012. Women in jail, 80 percent of whom are mothers, now make up the fastest growing segment of the criminal justice population, a study found this week.

When Laticia Morris reflects on her tumultuous family life years ago, she almost feels it was her fate to end up in jail.

Her dad spent most of his life in and out of prison, she says, never holding down an honest job. Her mother, too, was caught in a pattern of drug addiction and criminal behavior. Their time away from their daughter began a cycle of criminal behavior from the start, she says now.

“But that is simply to say how incarceration was in the household, from the very beginning of my existence,” says Ms. Morris, now a program assistant for a social services agency in New York who also twice served time for selling cocaine. “Incarceration, it breaks up homes, it breaks up families. There’s no forgiveness.”

For the past few years, criminal justice experts and a growing bipartisan chorus of critics have tended to agree. There have been widespread efforts to change the country’s sentencing laws and reform its burgeoning criminal justice systems – the largest such network in the world by far.

There has been a slight decline in the number of people the United States locks up every year in federal and state prisons – with 1.5 million people, the US still houses about 25 percent of the global prison population. But at the same time, the nation’s city and county jails have still been processing growing numbers of people accused of crimes.

Now, in a finding that has stunned researchers, women in jails are the fastest growing population within the justice system. That's at a time when crime rates have declined and there are ongoing efforts to reduce the numbers of people locked up for nonviolent offenses. The vast majority of the women are arrested for nonviolent crimes.

“So although we’re in this moment where there is attention on jails and a desire in many jurisdictions to rethink the way they use their jails, and reduce the overuse of jails, the population of women continues to grow,” says Elizabeth Swavola, senior program associate at the Vera Institute and coauthor of a report on women in jails released this week. “[This] suggests that these reform initiatives around the country aren’t reaching women.”

The report found the number of women in jail had skyrocketed nearly 1,300 percent (from fewer than 8,000 in 1970 to about 110,000 in 2014). During those years, the overall jail population climbed nearly 400 percent (from 157,000 to to 745,000).

The reasons for this trend aren’t altogether clear, researchers say. But the report released this week, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” funded by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, found that local jails are mostly ill-equipped to handle the specific needs of women – 80 percent of whom are mothers and single parents.

That has significant effects on the larger social fabric, researchers say.

“We know the single parent households are more vulnerable economically, we know the consequences of poverty and its long-term effects on children,” says Ms. Swavola. “And we know that we don’t have the social support, in terms of access to housing, the quality of education and access to child care, and so on. And the fact that these women now have on top of all of these difficulties a criminal record – it takes a toll, not only on the women, but it poses particular risks to the next generation.”

When mom's in jail

When a mother is unable to afford bail, her family often goes into a tailspin. Children, too, are then often placed into the social services system.

“The ripple effects and the stress on families is profound,” says Katharine Nephew, director of children, youth, and family services at the Osborne Association in the Bronx.

For the past few years, many of the efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the astronomical rate of incarceration in the US have focused on nonviolent offenders. The continued growth in the number of incarcerated women at the same time has perplexed researchers, since 82 percent of the women in jails have committed nonviolent offenses.

On the one hand, as jurisdictions around the nation have been trying to design new programs to reduce jail populations – diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, drug treatment, educational options – virtually all of these programs were designed for the vast majority of prisoners: men.

“The same factors that sweep men into jails are also at work with women,” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s just that there are more of those factors among women, as well as an additional set of risk factors – mental health issues, trauma, the fact that they are female heads of households and are more likely to be living in poverty.”

Swavola says popular police strategies such as the “war on drugs” and arrests for small violations like broken windows have helped drive the dramatic rise in the number of women in jail. “As the criminal justice system has increasingly focused on lower-level offenses, women have been swept up into the system, as they do tend to commit those types of offenses.” 

The arrest rate for drug possession tripled for women between 1980 and 2009, researchers say, while the arrest rate for men doubled.

'These are not places for women'

On the other hand, researchers found that women in city and county jails often lack basic feminine hygiene products, as well as neonatal health services and gynecological care.

Last month, in a video that went viral, a district court judge in Kentucky was incredulous when a female defendant appeared before her wearing what appeared to be only a long shirt.

The defendant, a black woman who had been held for three days after being arrested for failing to complete a diversionary program for a shoplifting offense, explained that she was menstruating and had been denied feminine hygiene products, as well as a shower and a change of clothes. She was wearing athletic shorts under her shirt.

“Am I in the twilight zone?” asked Jefferson District Court Judge Amber Wolf. “This is outrageous. Is this for real?” During the court proceedings she called a corrections officials and chewed him out for allowing the woman to appear in court this way. Judge Wolf then apologized to the woman and released her from jail with time served and a $100 fine.

But such incidents are common in many local county jails, researchers say.

“These are not places for a woman,” says Morris, who spent time in a Long Island jail, as well as an upstate prison and military-style boot camp. “And it’s not as if, if we do something wrong we shouldn’t be punished for it. But as women, we’re getting into prison in such a high rate today, it’s like, what’s going on? These aren’t places made for women.”

More needs to be done to design programs specifically aimed at the specific risks of women and mothers within the criminal justice system – especially from the start, prison officials say.

“For the most part, the things that lead women to commit crimes are not things that can be made better by sending her into a secured jail or prison,” says Georgia Lerner, executive director of Women’s Prison Association in New York.

“They’re not mental hospitals, they’re not health clinics, they’re not educational institutions, they are not job training facilities,” Ms. Lerner continues. “We’ve tried to retrofit them to do these things, but when you think about it, jails and prisons are meant to detain people. But they don’t have the resources where those underlying drivers that lead people to commit crimes can be addressed in a safe way or in a way that reduces their risk.”

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