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January 9, 2018

Taking a close look at the state of women's incarceration in the states

Women_overtime_select_statesThe very fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative have a very fine new report on incarceration rates and populations for women in the United States.  The report is titled "The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth," and the full report is a must read for anyone interested in prison population data and/or the importance of analyzing modern criminal justice systems with gendered sophistication. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the report: 

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. This report sheds more light on women in the era of mass incarceration by tracking prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states. The analysis identifies places where recent reforms appear to have had a disparate effect on women, and offers states recommendations to reverse mass incarceration for women alongside men.

Across the country, we find a disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends. While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men. Looking deeper into the state-specific data, we can identify the states driving the disparity.

In 35 states, women’s population numbers have fared worse than men’s, and in a few extraordinary states, women’s prison populations have even grown enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population. Too often, states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states. Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.

Nationally, women’s incarceration trends have generally tracked with the overall growth of the incarcerated population. Just as we see in the total population, the number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that state and local policies have driven the mass incarceration of women.

There are a few important differences between men’s and women’s national incarceration patterns over time.  For example, jails play a particularly significant role in women’s incarceration (see sidebar, “The role of local jails”). And although women represent a small fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

While the national trend provides helpful context, it also obscures a tremendous amount of state-to-state variation.  The change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has actually been much smaller in some places, like Maine, and far more dramatic in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. A few states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, reversed course and began decarcerating state prisons years ago. The wide variation in state trends underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions....

The mass incarceration of women is harmful, wasteful, and counterproductive; that much is clear.  But the nation’s understanding of women’s incarceration suffers from the relative scarcity of gender-specific data, analysis, and discourse.  As the number of women in prisons and jails continues to rise in many states — even as the number of men falls — understanding this dramatic growth becomes more urgent.  What policies fuel continued growth today?  What part does jail growth play?  Where is change needed most now, and what kinds of changes will help? This report and the state data it provides lay the groundwork for states to engage these critical questions as they take deliberate and decisive action to reverse prison growth.

January 9, 2018 at 08:39 PM | Permalink

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