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What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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