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Women Behind Bars: Female Incarceration Rates in the U.S. from a Global Perspective

By Ariel Neidermeier | June 1, 2017

Despite the scrutiny on mass incarceration in the United States (the U.S. incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country in the world), little focus has been given to the precipitous rise in the number of women in jail. Only 5% of the world’s female population live in the U.S. yet American women account for 30% of the world’s total population of incarcerated women. That’s twice the percentage in China and four times the population of incarcerated women in Russia. In the state of Illinois alone, women are incarcerated at a rate on par with El Salvador, a country in which abortion is illegal and women are routinely jailed for having miscarriages.

All the Single Mothers

While there are still many more men than women in prison, the rate of growth of American female imprisonment has far outpaced men, an increase of more than 50% since 1980. Furthermore, the social implications of heightened female incarceration are far-reaching: 79% of the more than 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system are mothers, most of them single mothers. The loss of a single parent to incarceration disrupts families and negatively affects children in often the most underserved communities.

Perhaps the imprisonment of more women is a valid policy response given female behavior that seems to be trending towards criminality. In lieu of an in-depth counter to this critique, I’ll leave some statistics as food-for-thought: violent and property crime have decreased sharply in the U.S. over the past century; Eighty-two percent of women are incarcerated due to low-level, nonviolent offenses (including property, drug and public order offenses); Two-thirds of these women are individuals of color.

Setting the Caged Birds Free

From a strictly cost-benefit standpoint, curbing female incarceration and mass incarceration in general would have beneficial consequences for taxpayers. Although exact statistics vary across states, Most recent studies put the average cost of incarcerating one inmate in the U.S. is $31,977 per year. This amounts to over $80 billion USD annually to maintain the country’s growing prison population.

Confronting this issue will require a complex set of reforms that target perverse incentives at multiple levels of the justice system. Below is an abbreviated set of policy recommendations for reforms at different decision-making points of the justice system, including at the point of arrest and prosecution:

o    Shift focus away from people accused of minor offenses to more serious ones.

o    Reduce number of low-level offenses such as driving with a suspended license, petty theft and possession of marijuana by issuing citations in lieu of arrest.

o    Directing people who are dealing with mental health crises to social services rather than criminalizing their problems.

o    Allow jurisdictions to establish policies and programs that allow for alternatives to traditional prosecution such as problem-solving courts that deal with specific challenges such as substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness.

o    Allow jurisdictions to decline to prosecute certain low-level offenses or dismiss cases altogether.

While policymakers are beginning to engage in more targeted efforts to lessen the number of individuals (read: men) incarcerated , specific questions addressing the incarceration of women are still largely left out of the discussion. The justice system and community stakeholders - both at the national and local levels - must commit to bringing women into the conversation.


Ariel Neidermeier is the graduating Editor-in-Chief of JIPS and a second year International Management track at GPS. She has a broad background in broadcast reporting, having previously earned her undergraduate degree in multimedia journalism from Emerson College and interning at NPR- and ABC News- affiliate stations around the country.


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