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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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."