The number of women imprisoned in the United States’ 3,200 municipal and county jails increased to about 110,000 in 2014 — a 14-fold increase from 1970, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Incarceration rates have been soaring for women in small rural counties, the report found, even as the rate of arrest for women dropped in the nation’s largest counties. “Once a rarity, women are now held in jails in nearly every county — a stark contrast to 1970, when almost three-quarters of counties held not a single woman in jail,” the report noted.
The study found that the vast majority of the incarcerated women were poor, African-American or Latino, and had drug or alcohol-related problems — around 80 percent of these women also have children. Most of the women are being held on low-level offenses such as drug possession or shoplifting — others were imprisoned for violating parole, missing court-ordered appointments, or being unable to pay bail or court-mandated fees and fines, the report found.
Even as rates for serious crimes have declined, police have cracked down on minor offenses that might once have been overlooked, the Justice Department said. “As the focus on these smaller crimes has increased,” said Elizabeth Swavola, one of the authors of the Vera report, “women have been swept up into the system to an even greater extent than men.” According to the report, women accounted for 26 percent of arrests in 2014, compared to 11 percent in 1960.
Most commonly, these arrests have been drug-related. Drug possession arrests doubled for men, and tripled for women, between 1980 and 2009 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In families that rely on the mother, both financially and structurally, the damage from an arrest can be irreversible, said Laurie R. Garduque, director for justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation, which helped fund the study.
“I missed a lot of time,” said Dolfinette Martin, who was jailed for shoplifting in Louisiana in 2005. Martin, who has five children, no money, and an addiction to cocaine at the time, said her children once excelled in school but lost focus while she was in prison. None of them have graduated, and her two eldest have both been incarcerated. “That cycle of poverty — not a lot of resources, not a lot of jobs, the lack of education, you kind of give up,” the 46-year-old said. “You live with a lot of regret, a lot of guilt — tremendous guilt — when you have kids in the street trying to survive.”
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