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Accelerated Rate of Female Incarceration A Growing Concern for Reform Advocates  

There are six times the number of women incarcerated now than there were in 1980, sounding alarm bells for prisoners’ rights and criminal justice reform advocates.

jail 1287943 1280A new research report from The Sentencing Project calls for changes to the criminal justice policies that yielded these results and points to a proliferation of law enforcement efforts, stricter drug sentencing and post-conviction reentry barriers as the impetus for the uniquely challenging environment facing women. “As this year marks fifty years since the United States began its dramatic increase in imprisonment, it is clearer than ever that this is not working," said research analyst Kristen Budd in an email. "The continued overcriminalization of women and girls does nothing to improve public safety, but needlessly destroys lives, families and communities.” 

Not only has the number of incarcerated women grown drastically over the last four decades, but the rate of growth has vastly outpaced the rate men have been imprisoned, notes The Sentencing Project. While there are more incarcerated men overall, women have been imprisoned at a rate twice that of men during the survey period. In real terms, the number of incinerated women in 1980 was 26,326. That figure jumped to 168,449 by 2021, per the project’s analysis. Nearly 60% of women imprisoned in a state facility have a child younger than 18 years old, it adds.

From Twitter

The Innocence Project @innocence ·Mar 31

"Conversations about mass incarceration have often overlooked women, even though they are the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people. #WomensHistoryMonth"

To put the broader U.S. prison system in context, the Prison Policy Initiative reports local, state, federal and tribal criminal justice systems account for more than 2 million incarcerated individuals occupying “1,566 state prisons, 98 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”

“Not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world; every single U.S. state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on earth,” notes the advocacy organization. “To be sure, states like New York and Massachusetts appear progressive in their incarceration rates compared to states like Louisiana, but compared to the rest of the world, every U.S. state relies too heavily on prisons and jails to respond to crime.”

From Twitter

Mother Jones @MotherJones ·Mar 22

"Update: The ex-warden of a federal prison in CA was just sentenced to nearly 6 years behind bars for sexually abusing incarcerated women, including by groping them and forcing them to pose naked. Here's our original dispatch from the trial:"

The Sentencing Project report also adds that while women have seen a dramatic spike in incarceration rates, girls, much like boys, are being incarcerated less than they were at the turn of the century. In 2001, the report indicates 15,104 girls were living in “residential placement settings,” but by 2019 that number was cut by approximately two-thirds.

Discrepancies between male and female incarcerated individuals are present at younger age groups as well, though. “Though just 15% of youth incarcerated on a typical day are girls, they make up a much higher proportion of those incarcerated for the lowest level offenses. Thirty-four percent of youth in placement for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls,” notes the report. “More than half of youth incarcerated for running away are girls. Overall, one-third of incarcerated girls are held for status offenses or for violating the terms of their probation.”

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