Criminal Justice

The Mass Incarceration of Women in Jails is Being Overlooked, Study Says

Despite the national attention around mass incarceration, a study finds that a dramatic increase of women in jails isn't being addressed.

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Pacific Press/Sipa USA/Newscom

Women are the fasting growing incarcerated population in the U.S., and local jails are major driver of that rise. However, the reasons women increasingly end up in jail and the challenges they face there have largely been left out of the national conversation about criminal justice reform, according to a report released Wednesday by the Vera Institute for Justice and the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge.

While the role of jails in driving mass incarceration has been receiving more attention lately, the report says there has been little research or public policy addressing "the precipitous rise in the number of women in jail."

Individual cases, like the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas county jail after being arrested during a routine traffic stop in 2015, have drawn national headlines and attention to the issue of women, especially minority women, in jails, but Liz Swavola, one of the report's main authors for the Vera Institute, said "the lack of research was pretty surprising itself."

"It was hard to get a look at these women at the national level," Swavola said. "The last time that race and gender were tracked together was 1998."

What Swavola and researchers did find is the number of women in county and municipa jails—where defendants are typically held while awaiting the conclusion of their case—has boomed.

The number of women in jail has risen from less than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000.

"Once a rarity, women are now held in jails in nearly every county—a stark contrast to 1970, when almost three quarters of counties held not a single woman in jail," the report said.

Figuring out why those numbers have risen so dramatically is a tougher question.

"There's not a lot of research exploring that very question, but we were able to cobble together that a couple things are going on," Swavola said. "First, there's been an increasing focus on lower level, nonviolent offenses that have swept many people, but particularly women, into contact with criminal justice system."

A survey from Davidson County, Tennessee that found 77 percent of women were booked into jail on misdemeanor charges, the most common charge being failure to appear in court after receiving a citation. Meanwhile, parole violators accounted for one-quarter of women in jail in Washington, D.C.

The second reason more women are ending up in jail, Swavola said, is what she calls an increase in "assembly line justice," where courts don't take into account individual circumstances such as poverty, trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse—all of which occur at shockingly higher rates among women in jail, and especially minority women in jail, than in the general population.

The report cites a sample of nearly 500 women in jails across various regions of the country, 82 percent reported being dependant on drugs or alcohol at some point in their life, while 86 percent reported having experienced sexual violence.

"Those women are coming into a system that's really designed for men and doesn't account for that trauma," Swavola said.

And 79 percent of women in jails are mothers, most often single mothers. Putting women in jail under these circumstances, the report argues, puts emotional and financial stress on mothers, their children, and their support networks.

As a positive example, the report cites Connecticut, which has a special program for women sentenced to probation that takes into account family care needs and other gender-specific factors.

"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 concludes. "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."

The study's authors recommend using a variety of pre-arrest and pre-trial methods, such as reducing prosecutions for low-level offenses and increasing releases without cash bonds.

Laurie Garduque, the director of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, said that while many cities have introduced some efforts to steer low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system, few have approached the problem holistically, looking at every decision point or entry ramp into the justice system—from police to prosecutors to judges to reentry into society. (As Reason has extensively reported in the past, relying solely on drug courts and gentler-sounding diversion programs leaves much of the laws, tactics, and stigmas of mass incarceration intact.)

"We know you can write citations instead of make arrests," Garduque said. "We know you can use risk assessment and make decisions about whether someone should be released or leave it to pretrial services. But you need to have all of those system actors, who are often elected officials and have different incentives, in agreement."

The Safety and Justice Challenge awarded $25 million in grants to 20 U.S. cities in April to reduce their jail populations and address racial disparities in their justice systems.

Philadelphia is one of those grant recipients. Julie Wertheimer, Philadelphia's deputy director of public safety, said the city is exploring alternatives to cash bonds, which often trap low-income defendants in jail, and expanding the use of electronic monitoring.

The city already has some diversion and reentry programs, and after it decriminalized marijuana in 2014 it began adopting a cite-and-release policy for other low-level crimes as well.

"The unintended consequence [of decriminalizing marijuana] was minor offenses were treated more seriously than carrying an ounce of pot, so we requested some sort of parity," Fran Healy, a legal adviser to the Philadelphia police commissioner, said. "It gives us a lot of credence in the community so we're not talking out of both sides of our mouth."

Despite these efforts, though, Philadelphia still has the highest per capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities.

"When you start to unpack all the factors," Garduque said, "this is not a set of problems and issues that's going to be resolved quickly, and it's going to take the engagement of all of us."

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  1. Women are the fasting growing incarcerated population in the U.S., and local jails are major driver of that rise.

    You guys should really think about hiring an editor.

    1. They’re all editors.

      1. A proofreader is what they really need.

    2. Maybe it’s all the dieting?

      1. The Fruit Sushi is fishy.

  2. And 79 percent of women in jails are mothers, most often single mothers.

    Funny, you never see anyone mention the percent of “Fathers” among the male incarcerated population.

    I think i’d be more concerned about this problem if it weren’t for a particular grandmother I really think should be in jail right now.

    1. Betty White?

      1. I wouldn’t toss around names too-lightly. Betty’s known to leave snitches in ditches.

        1. They know how to make a body disappear in St. Olaf.

    2. Hitlery Kkklinton?

    3. What is the takeaway from that statistic, anyhow?

      1. What is the takeaway from that statistic, anyhow?

        The state is going to takeaway a lot of children?

        1. Presumably, most of them have other potential guardians besides the state/foster care (grandparents, at least) but even so, is the answer to stop punishing mothers who commit crimes*? That’s kind of an interesting incentive, there…

          * = SLD about fewer things being crimes

          1. is the answer to stop punishing mothers who commit crimes*?

            There you go, ruining C.J.’s public-handwringing-exercise. Bra-vo (sarcastic clap).

            Next, you’ll point out that any proposed “solutions” probably apply equally to male-inmates, and completely ruin the special-interest-appeal of the piece.

          2. I don’t know, but I’d bet that most of the mothers in prison are there for drug related offenses or addicts who committed other crimes to pay for drugs.

      2. That women who have unprotected sex and decide to keep the results are a different better class of people than the rest of us that deserve special protections and rights?

        1. Well, no. But it probably sucks for the kids, who presumably are innocent.

    4. I think i’d be more concerned about this problem if it weren’t for a particular grandmother I really think should be in jail right now.

      I think I’d be concerned about this problem if it weren’t presented in the context of; “Those women are coming into a system that’s really designed for men”.

      Glass ceilings are tough, but men automatically deserve whatever ceiling, be it glass, wood, or concrete that they may find themselves under.

      Fuck off, slaver.

      1. “Those women are coming into a system that’s really designed for men”.

        Obligatory

        1. Hilarious. Half the male population imprisoned. Feminists complain that prison privileges men.

          Compare: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-37037532 More Than a Third of Female Students ‘Have Mental Health Problems’. Somewhere in the text “These figures – for 2014 – showed there were 130 suicides in England and Wales among full-time students aged 18 or above. Of those, 97 deaths were for male students and 33 were females.”.

          1. All disparity is proof of oppression. Clearly there’s a glass-ceiling involved here.

          2. Feminists complain that prison privileges men.

            By wholly acknowledging that it holds them to the same set of potentially unreasonable standards.

            1. Sounds interesting. More details, please.

              1. I was referring to the article;
                The second reason more women are ending up in jail, Swavola said, is what she calls an increase in “assembly line justice,” where courts don’t take into account individual circumstances such as poverty, trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse?all of which occur at shockingly higher rates among women in jail, and especially minoirty women in jail, than in the general population.

                Not that new crimes are being drawn up specifically targeting women or that women’s prisons are considerably underfunded/staffed relative to men’s or even that men’s prisons serve men exceedingly well. But that the laws are being applied equally/indiscriminately and that because the female prison system is a carbon-copy of the male system and *now* that women are being jailed at rates approaching men, it’s a real problem.

                1. Lady Justice is too blind to her fellow women.

                2. My bad, lack of attention. Thanks for taking the time to spell this out.

      2. Exactly. What kind of soft-brained identity politics bullshit is this? Mass incarceration is a problem, full stop. Why exactly is there some kind of distinction drawn between men and women on this?

  3. Women’s liberation. They end up in jail.

  4. I don’t care. Men are getting crushed by the prison system, in far far greater numbers.

  5. Figuring out why those numbers have risen so dramatically is a tougher question.

    Women’s equality? In all seriousness, maybe women are no longer being given a pass for behavior that would land a man in jail? For example, my aunt was pulled over for DUI in the 1970s and the cop just told her to go to a nearby hotel and sleep it off. A man in that situation would have most likely been arrested.

    1. maybe women are no longer being given a pass for behavior that would land a man in jail?

      That, and its also possible that with crime rates generally hovering around ~40-year lows, police find themselves pursuing and charging behaviors that they’d otherwise have ignored, being unwilling to turn a mother into a statistic .

      These days, they’ll take any statistics they can get.

  6. I came here to make a few points, and most of them have been made above (women nowadays being held to the same standards as men instead of being given a pass, why should it matter if they’re mothers if it doesn’t also matter that the men are fathers, stop putting non-violent offenders in prison regardless of gender and it won’t be an issue), but I’ll add one more:

    FTA…

    ‘ 82 percent reported being dependant on drugs or alcohol at some point in their life, while 86 percent reported having experienced sexual violence.

    “Those women are coming into a system that’s really designed for men and doesn’t account for that trauma,” ‘.

    Why does this matter at all? Are these factors taken into account for male offenders? What percentage of men in prison have histories of substance abuse? How many men in prison were sexually assaulted by parents, or just in general had the shit kicked out of them as kids? Hint: males are victims of violence more regularly than females, it’s just that no one cares.

    1. I say that to say this: stop dividing people into classes. If you want to fix the problem (any problem), attack it at the root, not the point at which it begins impacting certain groups differently. As with many societal ills in America these days, the problem will evaporate upon ending the war on drugs and the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders. But y’all knew that already.

      1. No, those things alone will not “evaporate” the problem. There’s a strong statistical correlation between growing up in a fatherless home, and later being in poverty, having mental illness, drug use, and criminal behavior. The men in prison are disproportionately children of single mothers. I suspect the women are, too.

        Subsidizing single motherhood is basically subsidizing the creation of future poverty and crime.

        1. And you think that putting generations of nonviolent offenders into the prison system isn’t the number one, or at least very near the number one, reason why so many children are growing up in single parent homes?

          1. Clearly there’s feedback going on, but you overestimate the percentage of nonviolent offenders in prison, and assume that if they weren’t in prison, they’d be married to the mothers of their children.

  7. #WhiteMalesLivesDontMatter

  8. We wouldn’t have a “mass incarceration” problem with either males or females if people would just stop breaking the law.

  9. This is not the type of article I expect to see on Reason. This is feminist propaganda. The kind of crap that says women deserve special treatment because… vagina. Yeah, women shouldn’t be punished because only women can be care takers. I mean, it’s not like men receive harsher sentences for the same crime with similar criminal histories, suffer from drugs or mental illness.

    I can certaintly get behind reforms about mass incarceration, but when you pull this gender specific BS, I’m no longer inclined to support you. Reason, I expect better.

  10. Easy, war on sex and war on drugs. Both cause a revolving door. After one arrest, it’s hard to get a job. White middle class white women will have a fit if we legalize either, with the black women bearing the brunt of vice laws.

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