There are 14 times more women in jail in this country today than there were in the 1970s. That’s not a typo.
The political sphere is brimming with talk of liberal reform these days, often celebrating a policy shift toward ending mass incarceration, toward a more “humane” criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation. Yet despite recent measures aimed at curbing harsh incarceration policies, the number of women in local jails is only growing.
In a detailed new analysis of the experiences of women in jail—the fastest growing correctional population—the Vera Institute of Justice shows that in many ways the rise in the female jail population over recent years parallels the rising male jail population. Both have largely been driven by harsher sentencing policies, crackdowns on drug use, and “Broken Windows” policing policies that disproportionately criminalize black and Latino youth. But women typically become incarcerated after experiencing gender-based trauma throughout their lives. About eight in ten have experienced domestic partner abuse. A large majority have survived sexual violence.
Most women in jail are detained pre-trial; others are serving shorter sentences, which makes it arguably a less severe form of incarceration than prison. (While jails often house people awaiting trial, state and federal prisons primarily hold those already convicted of crimes.) But at the same time, jail is potentially more destabilizing in a woman’s life.
Women are often ensnared at the jagged edge of Broken Windows policing. Aside from drug offenses, other common charges for women include “minor property crimes, such as shoplifting; and simple assault, such as threats or minor attacks like biting, shoving, hitting, or kicking.”
The Vera report notes that generally women “tend to have less extensive criminal histories than their male counterparts,” even though their arrest rates have grown at a faster rate than that of men. Overall, the share of arrests of women versus men jumped from just 11 percent in 1960 to 26 percent in 2014.
Co-author Elizabeth Swavola says via email:
Women have consistently been charged with lower-level, nonviolent offenses. As criminal justice agencies have come to place greater emphasis on those types of offenses, women have become swept up into the system to a greater extent….While the number of women in prison has begun to decrease, the number of women in jails has continued to increase.