REPORT: Women Are Landing in Local Jails At An Alarming Rate

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 17, 2016

A new joint report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative says that women locked in local jails—like the one where Sandra Bland died a year ago—are now the fastest growing incarcerated population in the nation. And those inmates are disproportionately Black and Latinx.

Released today (August 17), “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform” examines what lands these women in jail—and their experiences while locked up. The researchers found that the number of women in jails have multiplied 14-fold since 1970, when just 27 percent of local jails counted women among the incarcerated. Now, nearly every single county jail has women locked in its holding cells, and 64 percent of them are people of color.


“Just as the misuse of local jails has been missing from the national conversation on criminal justice reform until recently, the exponential growth of women in jail has been ignored for too long,” Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, said in a statement sent to Colorlines. “This report is an important first step to recognizing this gap—which profoundly and directly affects families as well as the women behind bars—and reversing course on this alarming trend.”

Key findings, per the statement:

  • Among women in local jails, 32 percent have a serious mental illness—a rate more than double that of jailed men and six times that of women in the general public.
  • Women in jail experience trauma at extraordinarily high rates both before and during their incarceration: 86 percent report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, and women make up the majority of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization.
  • Women are more economically disadvantaged in general, and are less likely to be able to afford the bail, fines and fees that often trap them in jail or lead them back to jail following their release. The majority of women in jail are people of color, and nearly half of all single Black and Hispanic women have zero or negative net wealth.
  • Though women still make up a fraction of the overall jail population, their incarceration has a far-reaching impact on families and communities. Nearly 8 in 10 women in jail are mothers, and unlike men, the majority are single parents.

The report’s authors also highlighted existing strategies that could reverse the trend:

  • Making policy choices that move away from enforcing or prosecuting low-level crimes
  • Assigning defense counsel at the earliest stages of a case
  • Expanding use of release on recognizance
  • Creating special court parts that deal exclusively with bail review or disposition of certain cases.

Read the full report here.