The number of women in jail is growing faster than for any other correctional population, even as the number of incarcerated men has begun to fall, a report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, finds.
The report, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (48 pages, PDF), found that the number of women in county and municipal jails has increased fourteen-fold since 1970 — from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000 in 2014 — driven largely by a steep rise in incarceration rates in small counties. According to the report, of the women currently incarcerated, nearly 80 percent are mothers, the majority of them single parents, while nearly two-thirds are women of color, and 60 percent did not have full-time employment before their arrest. The report also notes that women in jail are less likely to be able to afford the bail, fines, and fees that often trap people in the system; that 32 percent of women in jail have a serious mental illness, more than double the rate among jailed men; and that women experience trauma at extraordinarily high rates before and during their incarceration.
Despite increased recognition of the role of jails as a driver of mass incarceration and calls for reform, the report notes that the increase in the number of women in jails has been largely overlooked. Moreover, nearly all new responses to the growing jail population, such as assessment tools, pretrial supervision, and probation programs, are based on research about men in jail and can have unintended negative consequences for women.
"Just as the damaging overuse of local jails has been missing from the national conversation about mass incarceration until quite recently, the exponential growth of women in jail has gone unnoticed for too long," said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. "This report is an important step in exposing this problem — which profoundly and directly affects families as well as the women behind bars. We hope it catalyzes the action needed to reverse course."
"As this report shows, the women cycling through America’s jails are disproportionately suffering from problems that jail time can make worse rather than fix — including trauma, mental illness, and poverty," said MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch. "We hope this report raises awareness about how the overuse of incarceration affects women, and that it leads to more effective alternatives that build better futures for women and their families, and ultimately, help restore public trust in the justice system."