Overlooked: Women in Jail

Overlooked: Women in Jail


I’m Liz Swavola. I’m a senior program associate with the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Most of the national conversation around mass incarceration
and the growth of incarceration has focused on prisons which house people
who are sentenced. What’s been overlooked is jails. The Vera Institute of Justice has started looking into local incarceration and what we found is that it’s been growing dramatically. Since 1970, there’s been a five-fold increase in the number of people in jail. We took a deeper look at incarceration at the local level and we found something really surprising, and that was the growth among women. Since 1970, the population of women in jails has grown 14-fold. So despite this dramatic growth in the number of women, there really hasn’t been much research to explore why women are increasingly ending up in jail. Most of the research is old, it’s dated, it’s scarce, and it only scratches the surface about who these women really are. What we do know from research on women in jails and women in the justice system more generally, is that most of them are women of color, most come from very poor communities, and almost 80 percent are mothers, and most of those are single mothers. So although jails were originally designed to hold those who were either a danger to the community or at risk of flight, many of the women who are in jail are in there on low-level, non-violent charges. 32 percent of women in jail are there for property offenses, 29 percent for drug offenses, and nearly 21 percent for public order offenses. We also know that many women in jail have experienced trauma over the course of their lifetimes. When they come to jail, the environment often triggers a lot of that trauma that they have experienced, so anything from shackling, to being in solitary confinement, to being observed by male officers while doing private things like showering or using the restroom can be deeply traumatizing for these women. In this moment of jail reform and local criminal justice reform that’s taking place across the country, it’s time to bring women into the conversation. This report is a first step to doing that. We invite you to read the report and to learn more about what’s happening in your community by using the Incarceration Trends tool on Vera’s website.

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell

1 Comment

  1. Women much less likely to go to prison than any race of a male. Males get longer sentences for same crime on average. Women 3 times more likely to receive probation for same crime. Us men have trauma too, but since we don't seek help for mental health issues we can't use that as much in court.

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