The 1980s were a time of tough on crime laws, which ushered in an era of mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws. At the start of the decade, approximately 13,000 women were in prison, representing 4 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons. Over the next 20 years, the rates of incarceration accelerated, with the rate of increase for women surpassing that of men in the same time period.
By 2010, women represented 7 percent of the prison population.
Most of the more than 200,000 women currently in prison are there for non-violent offenses. A quarter of women in prison are there because of drug related crimes, compared with only 17 percent of the male population. The remaining non-violent crimes include DUIs, robbery and property related crimes (all of which could be related to drugs). The war on drugs and related enforcement policies directly contribute to the increase in the numbers of women.
Though, some of it is just plain old sexism.
Women are often arrested as an accomplice to a partner who is involved in criminal activity, like a drug dealer. As is common in criminal cases, leniency in sentencing is offered in exchange for information on those higher up the food chain or details on the operation. The problem is, she’s just the girlfriend and may not have much, or any, information to exchange (there’s a glass ceiling in criminal enterprises, too). Her boyfriend, however, would be more directly involved and be able to negotiate a deal. In the end, he could end up serving less time than her, even though he is guilty of a greater number of offenses.
This is symptomatic of other issues contributing to women entering prison at alarming rates.
The policies driving the increase in the female prison population have a greater impact on the most vulnerable. The majority of these women have not finished high school, which means they were less likely to be employed when arrested. The vast majority of incarcerated women reported a history of physical and sexual abuse prior to incarceration, with 25 percent reporting the abuse occurring while they were minors. They are also more likely than the general population to suffer from mental health issues.
Needless to say, abused and unemployed people with psychological issues are not strong with coping skills. Nearly 75 percent of incarcerated women reported using drugs regularly prior to their arrest, with 40 percent of them under the influence at the time. This leads to risky behavior, like theft to support their habit, and relationships with abusive men – who are probably participating in criminal activity – like dealing drugs.
Did I mention that the majority of women are in jail due to drug-related offenses?
As with everything in America, race also matters. More than 60 percent of the prison population is African-American or Latino. In 2000, black women were incarcerated at a rate six times the rate of white women. Law enforcement policies that targeted poor minority communities led to dramatic increases in arrests. Mandatory sentencing laws also directly affected these women since nearly two-thirds of the women have had prior convictions.
In an unexpected twist, changes in policies are contributing to the increase in female prisoners and changing the racial makeup of the population.
After three decades of tough on crime tactics, advocacy groups, legislators and researchers have learned that these policies do little in curbing incarceration rates and have only led to prisons overcrowded with a large number of people who have committed nonviolent crimes. The decrease in violent crimes and an increase in initiatives that have focused on treatment for addiction, reduced sentencing for participation in prison programs and increased in reentry support have slowed the growth of incarceration since 2000 – except for women.
Since 2000, the incarceration rate for women has increased by 20 percent. The rate of incarceration increased for white women was 47 percent, while for white men it rose only 8.5 percent. Hispanic women and men showed a similar disparity of increase, with 23.3 percent and 2.2 percent respectively. Surprisingly, for incarceration rates for African-American women decreased by more than 30 percent (rates for black men also showed a decrease of almost 10 percent).
Again, race matters.
There are several theories for the disparities. Most notably, changes in drug sentencing policy contributed to change in female incarceration. In New York, for example, 99 percent of the decline in female drug offenders was seen in black and Hispanic women. In other states, statistics show an increase in prescription drug use and methamphetamine offenses among white and Latino women as contributing to their incarceration rates.
The uniqueness of what leads these women to prison is also what makes solutions to their reentry into society that much more difficult, and increases the chances of repeat offenses.
While the need for drug treatment is apparent, the issues which lead to the drug use also have to be addressed. These women need extensive mental health counseling, education and job training, just to name a few. The availability of programs is far from guaranteed, and the quality varies from state to state – both of which is dependent on funding, which has been reduced. Access to health care (both inside of prison and out) also plays a key part in reversing the trend. Life expectancy for poor, uneducated white women has decreased by five years, the only group that has seen a decline.
Did I mention this is the same population that has the biggest increase in imprisonment?
Solutions are as complex as the problem and nothing will happen quickly. Small changes, such as increased counseling in prison, behavioral therapy and allowing women to serve their sentences in facilities that make it easier for them to maintain contact with their children have happened in varying degrees. Nevertheless, the increased incarceration of women should ring alarm bells throughout society as this will have a ripple effect for generations.
We have to do better for them and our country.