Women are a fast-growing criminal justice population according to occurring trends over the past thirty years. Since 1980, the number of women in prisons has overwhelmingly increased by more than 700%, making the growth rate for female imprisonment twice as high as men. And although only four percent of the female population lives in the United States, the U.S accounts for more than thirty percent of the world’s incarcerated women. In other words, 133 out of 100,000 women in the U.S. are imprisoned, and the rate in Illinois is 78 per 100,000 women (The Prison Initiative).
We see a continuing rise of women’s state prison populations, and many factors contribute to the steady increase. One factor being State’s push to reduce the men’s prison population, but counterproductively filled their empty spaces by incarcerating more women. Current trends show rates of imprisonment for African-American women have declined since 2000. However, the rate for White and Latinx has increased. Additionally, incarcerated women face substantial problems that are either preexisting or created by their imprisonment. Separation from children and significant others, lack of substance treatment, physical and mental health care, vocation and educational programs, sexual abuse, and disparities in disciplinary practices are some of the critical concerns women face and are typically unmet in the prison environment.
The mass incarceration of women, as we know, is harmful and ineffective. Change is needed now to lessen the damage that has impacted thousands of women and their families. But we must also reflect on which policies are sustaining the growth of women’s prisons. States are beginning to examine their patterns to develop an effective strategy to reduce prison populations. Policymakers suggest reform sentencing policies, avoid over-sentencing and encourage earlier release for low-risk individuals. And have also offered to reclassify criminal offenses that pose a minor threat to public safety and change responses to low-level infractions. To lower the number of people entering the correctional system, federal, state, and local governments should fully fund criminal defense since most criminal defendants cannot afford a private attorney. Public defenders play a crucial role in keeping people out of jail or prison. Lastly, criminal justice agencies must take a gender-responsive approach to meet the needs of justice-involved women. These recommendations will ensure women are included in reforms that move people away from prisons and toward better solutions.
(Image provided by The Prison Initiative)