Incarceration of Women Is Growing Twice as Fast as that of Men


The United States is one of the top incarcerators of women in the world. A new report from the Sentencing Project shows that between 1980 and 2016, the number of women incarcerated in American jails and prisons increased by more than 700 percent, from 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016.

Analyzing the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report found that while the number of men incarcerated far exceeds the number of women incarcerated, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980.

In 2016, there were 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system, including 1,031,999 women on probation or parole.  Out of 213,722 women incarcerated in 2016, nearly half (102,300) were in jail, and a earlier study suggests that more than half of the women in local jails likely have not been convicted of a crime.

While the rate of imprisonment for African American women has been declining since 2000, the 2016 rate (96 per 100,000) was twice the rate of imprisonment for white women (49 per 100,000).

Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Compared to 14 percent of incarcerated men, 25 percent of incarcerated women have been convicted with a drug offense; 27 percent of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, in contrast with 17 percent of incarcerated men.

Girls of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white girls. The number of incarcerated youth has declined significantly, but the placement rate for African American girls (110 per 100,000) and Native girls (134 per 100,000) is more than three times greater than for white girls (32 per 100,000). Girls are more likely to be incarcerated for the lowest level offenses; 38 percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses like truancy and curfew violations are girls, and more than half of all youth incarcerated for running away are girls.

The Prison Policy Initiative recently found that the progress that states have made in reducing prison populations since they peaked in 2009 has been uneven, impacting men more than women. The total number of men incarcerated in state prisons fell more than 5 percent between 2009 and 2015, but the number of women in state prisons fell only a fraction of a percent (0.29 percent). Contributors to this disparity include the lack of diversion programs for women and policy changes that have led to mandatory or “dual” arrests for fighting back against domestic violence, increasing criminalization of school-aged girls’ misbehavior, and the criminalization of women who support themselves through sex work, the report found.

Researchers have consistently found that incarcerated women face different problems than men, and those issues are often exacerbated by incarceration. Women are more likely to have a history of abuse, trauma, and mental health problems when they enter prison, but treatment is often inadequate or unavailable in prisons. The health systems in prison often fail to meet women’s unique physical health needs, including reproductive healthcare, management of menopause, nutrition, and treatment for substance abuse disorders.

More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under age 18. Because there are fewer women’s prisons, women are more likely to be incarcerated far from home, making face-to-face visits difficult and expensive. Women are more likely to be the primary caretakers of their children, which means the increasing incarceration of women leads to more disruption and insecurity for families. And the collateral consequences of incarceration are compounded for women, who earned less than men even before they were incarcerated.