Report: National Movement to Reduce U.S. Prison Population Has Largely Ignored Women

By Alfonso Serrano Jan 10, 2018

The nationwide push to reduce prison populations and bolster alternatives to incarceration has largely neglected women prisoners, according to a report released yesterday (January 9) by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Spurred by budget shortfalls and prison overcrowding, dozens of states have sought to reverse incarceration growth by modifying long-term sentences and focusing on violent offenders. But these reforms, which retain bi-partisan support, have ignored the underlying issues that result in the incarceration of women, including trauma, substance abuse issues and mental health challenges, according to the report.

The report, which tracked prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states, found that in 35 states, women’s incarceration rates outpaced that of men. Nationwide, the reports says, women’s state prison population increased 834 percent, more than twice the growth rate for men. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of men incarcerated in state prisons fell by 5 percent, according to the report, while the rate for women fell by 0.29 percent.

"Behind women’s outsized incarceration rates is a justice system that, by and large, ignores the systemic hardships faced by women," Wendy Sawyer, the report’s author, told Colorlines. "Women are more likely to enter prison with a history of abuse, trauma and mental health problems. On average, incarcerated women are substantially poorer than incarcerated men, and they are much more likely to be the primary caretakers of children."

According to Sawyer, in eight states, the growth of women’s incarcerated population has hampered efforts to reduce overall prison populations, even as the rate of incarceration for men is on the decline. Michigan, for example, saw the men’s prison population drop by 8 percent between 2009 and 2015, but the state incarcerated 30 percent more women over the same time frame, per the report. In a handful of states—Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada and New Hampshire—women’s incarceration rates are driving state prison growth.


Although Sawyer’s study focused solely on gender, a previous Prison Policy Initiative study used 2010 Census figures to break down national incarceration rates by race and ethnicity. That study found that Blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of Whites, and that Latinxs are twice as likely to be incarcerated than Whites. These findings mirror more recent studies. A 2016 study by The Sentencing Project found that in some states—Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin—African Americans are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of Whites. And nationally, state prisons incarcerate African Americans at 5.1 times the rate of Whites.

The report says that the growth is partly explained by the "tough on crime" policies of the 1980s and ’90s. The law enforcement and sentencing changes created by the national "war on drugs" had destructive effects on women. Other studies buttress this explanation. A 2016 Vera Institute of Justice report found that between 1989 and 2009, arrest rates for drug possession doubled for men, but tripled for women.

The Prison Policy Initiative report notes women face a unique set of circumstances in the prison environment. They are more likely to encounter sexual abuse from correctional staff, and they are more prone to experience psychological distress than men. Given these conditions, the report recommends alternatives to incarceration that treat substance abuse issues and mental health disorders.

The report also concludes that states should reclassify criminal offenses that pose little threat to public safety and expand the use of diversion strategies from the first moment of police contact, so that more women will be redirected from incarceration toward rehabilitative treatments and services. For many low-level offenses, for example, the report says police officers should issue citations instead of arrests. And state governments should stop arresting people for failing to pay fines. Instead, the report says, state and local governments should expand waiver systems and community service options.

"States ought to realize that the women in their care are victims as well as ‘offenders,’" Sawyer told Colorlines. "In response, states should be actively developing alternatives to incarceration and directing women toward those programs, something that, incidentally, would have an outsized positive impact on our justice system as a whole."