the past three decades, as the United States has experienced
explosive prison growth, women have been hard hit. Although
women have the dubious distinction of being the fastest
growing segment of the prison population, scant attention
has been paid to their involvement in the criminal justice
system. Indeed, even most official sources of criminal justice
data do not distinguish between men and women in their analyses,
leaving it only to speculation on whether there are any
distinctions between the two groups that make a difference.
HIT: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977 - 2004
is the first study of its kind, analyzing the striking growth
in the numbers of women in prison, state-by-state over nearly
three decades. The report provides context to the alarming
growth trends and reviews what is understood about the phenomena
by researchers who study women in the criminal justice system.
by the research of Dr. Natasha A. Frost and accompanied
by the analysis of Justice Strategies, HARD HIT is
the first in a series of reports to be put out by the Institute
on Women & Criminal Justice that will examine the states'
treatment of women in the criminal justice system. The aim
of these reports is to shed light on the phenomenon of punitiveness
- its pervasiveness, its roots, its consequences, and possible
Women's Prison Association is the nation's oldest and largest
service organization working with women in the criminal
justice system. WPA's work has a dual focus on direct services
and systems change. WPA operates a full range of program
services to address women's need for livelihood, housing,
family, health and well-being, and criminal justice compliance.
WPA's newest division, the Institute on Women & Criminal
Justice, is a national center for dialogue, research, and
information about criminal justice-involved women, their
families and communities. By fostering a national conversation
on women and criminal justice, the Institute seeks to create
breakthroughs in the ways in which our public systems address
the issue of women and crime, and to promote innovative
solutions and highlight what works.
HIT: The Growth in the Imprisonment of Women, 1977 - 2004
points to some alarming trends in our nation's incarceration
of women. These findings raise crucial questions for further
the board, the growth has been dramatic. In 1977,
the U.S. imprisoned 11,212 women; by 2004, that number
had ballooned to 96,125, a 757% increase. In 1977, the
United States imprisoned 10 women per 100,000 female residents;
in 2004, the rate had grown to 64 per 100,000.
state and regional variances exist. While imprisonment
rates have soared from coast to coast, there is a remarkable
level of variation among states and regions. For example,
in 2004, Oklahoma imprisoned 129 of every 100,000 female
residents. In contrast, that same year, Massachusetts
and Rhode Island imprisoned 11 women per 100,000 female
residents. Unless we are to believe that Oklahoma women
are more than 10 times more "criminal" than
their Massachusetts and Rhode Island counterparts, we
have to assume that criminal justice policy and practice
are pivotal. From a regional perspective, the Mountain
and Southern states stand out as particularly punitive
in the imprisonment of women. In fact, the South has historically
incarcerated women and men at relatively high rates. In
contrast, the Mountain states are showing a growth rate
for women that is startling both in its size and in comparison
the beginning of this century, interesting shifts occur.
The last five years covered by this report (1999 -
2004) reflect a period in which our reliance on incarceration
was being reconsidered. Many states engaged in sentencing
reform and in creating treatment and other alternatives
to imprisonment. During this time, some states continued
to increase the numbers of women they imprisoned (Florida's
prison population, for instance, increased by 1,840 women
or 48%), and other states made modest increases (like
Alabama's growth of 3%). Significantly, nine states actually
experienced a decrease in their female population during
this five-year period. Among them are some of the states
with the largest prison populations: New York was down
by 831 or 23% and New Jersey was down by 392 women or
families, and communities are devastated by imprisonment.
As discussed in Justice Strategies' review of the recent
research, millions of women and families in this country
have been affected by our nation's heavy reliance on incarceration.
The U.S. disproportionately imprisons women of color with
few economic resources and many familial responsibilities.
This has compounded the hardship experienced in already
Need for More Researchand Action
are a small portion of the prison population - roughly 7%
nationally, in 2004. So, why should we care? Of course,
imprisonment is not "worse" for women than it
is for men. However, the incarceration of women creates
some different effects that have historically been largely
unaddressed in conversations focusing primarily on men.
cycling of women through the criminal justice system has
a destabilizing effect not only on the women's immediate
families, but on the social networks of their communities.
They are, more often than not, primary caretakers of young
children and other family members.
the taxpayer's perspective, the price of incarcerating women
is not limited to the cost of the prison cell and three
meals a day. Locking up women also means paying the tab
for putting their children in foster care, treating health
and mental health conditions that have worsened during incarceration,
and providing public assistance and shelter for those who
are homeless and destitute upon release. For most women
who are sent to prison, the more economical and humane response
of providing community-based substance abuse and mental
health treatment, coupled with increased economic and social
supports, would produce a better result. WPA has long maintained
that criminal justice and social policy that better served
women would also produce better outcomes for men.
as HARD HIT suggests, women are especially sensitive
to shifting trends in imprisonment, we should be looking
to the patterns of their involvement in the criminal justice
system for clues to improving the system overall. The causes
of the trends revealed in this report are not self-evident
and warrant additional inquiry. In our next report in the
Punitiveness series, the Institute on Women &
Criminal Justice will go deeper in to the reasons for the
growth in female imprisonment, again state-by-state, examining
how offense type, risk of imprisonment, and length of stay
in prison contribute to the increase.
hope that this report will contribute to an evolving national
conversation about women, communities, and justice.
Jacobs, Institute Director
Sarah From, Deputy Director