Female Jail Population Ballooning, At Risk

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By Jessica DaSilva

Aug. 16 — The number of women in American jails has grown exponentially over the past few decades, according to a new report by two criminal justice reform organizations.

Between 1970 and 2014, the population increased by a factor of 14—from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000, according to the report.

The number of women in small county jail populations increased 31 times during that same time period, the report said.

Women in jail are also more likely to be affected by the risk factors that plague incarcerated men—such as poverty, unaffordable housing, and mental health treatment— the report revealed.

The report marks the first comprehensive examination of women in jails, said Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ) and one of the primary authors of the report.

The VIJ teamed up with the Safety and Justice Challenge, a criminal justice reform project led by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to compile the report, according to the organizations.

Need for Community Support

High percentages of women who wind up in jail experience trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse before going to jail, Swavola said. About 90 percent of incarcerated women experienced sexual violence, she added.

Additionally, around 80 percent of them are single mothers and the primary earners in their households, so when they go to prison, it impacts the entire family, she said.

Because these issues affect a greater number of women than men, it shows a need for more community-based alternatives, said Laurie R. Garduque, executive director of the MacArthur Foundation.

“Housing, social services to support families, living in safer neighborhoods, having better paying jobs—these are not problems that the criminal justice system alone can address,” Garduque said.

Lack of Data

To understand how to best implement gender-specific changes that would reduce the population of women in jails, jurisdictions need to start collecting data on who goes to jail, how long they stay there, and other factors based on every phase of the criminal justice system, Swavola said.

As it stands, most statistics are decades old, said Swavola, who compiled the report by “cobbling together” data gleaned from existing academic research, local governments and nonprofits.

Swavola said that her research showed women were at a more severe disadvantage at every phase of the criminal justice system.

For example, the report revealed high rates of mental illness in women in jails. Garduque said if those women could be diverted into mental health-care programs under the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than getting arrested, they would get the attention they need while the criminal justice system could see a reduction in its jail population.

“That’s why this report is so important,” she said. “It raises visibility of the issues and points out another way jails are being used unnecessarily at great public expense and no benefit to public safety.”

Looking Ahead

Because of the report's findings, the Safety and Justice Challenge will now pay more attention to female-specific data, Garduque said.

The Safety and Justice Challenge awarded grants to 20 jurisdictions to help them collect data to implement reform initiatives targeting specific demographics that contribute to high jail populations, Garduque said. Leaders from the jurisdictions meet twice a year to share progress and methods for reducing jail populations, she said.

The next meeting is in October, so Garduque said the report will definitely be a point of discussion.

Previous data collection allowed advocates to identify the differences in how people came into contact with law enforcement, revealing a disproportionate effect on racial and ethnic minorities, Garduque said. Jurisdictions need to include a focus on women in the criminal justice system to identify potential places for diversion away from the system, she said.

“If you don’t attend to the women in this system, you might not fully solve the problem,” Garduque said. “There are high social costs to failing to look at your jail population in regard to gender.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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