The US is throwing more and more women into jail because it doesn’t know what else to do with them

The US criminal justice system is not designed with women in mind.
The US criminal justice system is not designed with women in mind.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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In recent years, no group among the US incarcerated population has grown at a faster pace than women in local jails. Since 1970, this cohort has grown 14-fold, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge.

Forty-five years ago, most county jails didn’t hold a single woman. That’s no longer true.

While there are still fewer women in US jails than there are men, they are disproportionately affected by some of the main problems plaguing the criminal justice system: harsh punishments for those addicted to substance abuse, warehousing the mentally ill in jails as opposed to treating them, disadvantaging the poor who cannot afford bail or various fees.

“Jails were originally designed to hold people who were awaiting trial or resolution of their cases who were either a danger to the community or a risk of flight, and the vast majority of women in jail are there for nonviolent, low-level offenses… so you have to really question the utility of holding these women in jails,” said Elizabeth Swavola, one of the report’s authors. While jail is increasingly recognized as a huge contributor to the problem of mass incarceration, the conversation about reforming the system tends to bypass the population of women, she said.

What kind of woman ends up in jail?

Women who end up in jail are usually not hardened criminals. Their transgressions are predominantly property crimes, such as shoplifting, drug offenses, and public order offenses. One in three are mentally ill—a rate double that of men in jail. According to one study from the Department of Justice, 86% of them have experienced sexual abuse. Nearly 80% are mothers, typically single parents.

“I think many communities lack the resources to serve these women and help them to get the treatment that they need. And so the criminal justice system becomes the first responder and the last resort,” said Swavola.

The problem is particularly acute in small (less populated) counties, the report found, where there were 31 times more women in local jails in 2014 than there were in 1970, and where the numbers are still increasing—as opposed to more dense, urban areas. It’s unclear exactly why the hike has been so massive in small counties, but Swavola believes that it may be because larger jurisdictions have more resources available for services that address some of the issues that bring women to jail.

“Oftentimes we see in our work counties that have such a huge portion of their budget going to public safety that there really is not much left for mental health treatment, behavioral health treatment, substance use and even education or public programming.”

The majority of the women in the system are impoverished, and most are unemployed (60% as opposed to 40% of men). As is the case in the wider criminal justice system, women of color make up the majority of jail inmates, about two-thirds, and the income gap in their case is even starker: Black women make 63 cents for every dollar a white man earns, compared to 79 cents for white women, and are five times more likely to live in poverty than white women.

Broadly, women enter the system poorer than men, and part of their inability to avoid jail by posting cash bail, for instance, stems from systemic economic inequality, the report argues.

Why are more women being jailed?

Research on the topic is scarce and often outdated, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, but the existing data points to several reasons for the skyrocketing rise of women in jails. Most have to do with the fact that women are predominantly charged with low-level, non-violent offenses.

According to the report, “broken window policing,” which focuses on catching small offenses, can disproportionately target women. Women tend to be arrested for minor transgressions as opposed to violent crimes—between 1960 and 2009, the proportion of women arrested grew from 11% to 26% of total arrests in the US.

Once arrested, women often end up being disadvantaged in negotiation due to the way low-level offenses are prosecuted, according to the report. Women tend to be peripheral, or even unknowing participants in certain crimes, particularly those involving drugs. They can simply be a passenger in a car involved in a crime, a messenger, or deliverer, but the law doesn’t really distinguish between minor and important accomplices. And the less these peripheral actors know about their accomplices or the criminal activity, the less of a bargaining chip they have with prosecutors, and the worse deals they get. Paradoxically, the smaller their involvement in a crime, the more vulnerable they may end up being.

Most women involved in the criminal justice system are in fact not confined to living in a cell because of the minor nature of their crimes—they live under supervision: probation or parole. But systemic inequality can make it easy for them to fail, and end up in jail. Sometimes they can’t afford the fees and fines related to the supervision, while single mothers who juggle multiple obligations may find it harder to make appointments with probation authorities—which could mean going back behind bars, the report points out.

“Women deserve to be treated differently because they come to the system with different challenges and disadvantages that oftentimes are only worsened by their experience with the system,” Swavola said.