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Women Are the Fastest-Growing Population in Jail

Women Are the Fastest-Growing Population in Jail

The number of people in U.S. jails has grown five-fold since 1970. But if you look at women and men separately, you get two very different stories, a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge shows. The number of men in jail has started to decline, but the number of women has increased 14-fold over the past four and a half decades. This makes women in jail the fastest-growing population behind bars. (Jails are different from prisons in that the people in them have been arrested but not yet convicted in court.)

A large portion of these women are disadvantaged in some way. The majority are women of color, and the population is economically disadvantaged and often lacking resources to get out. Nearly 80 percent are mothers, and the majority of these mothers are single parents. Most of them committed minor offenses related to drugs or property — and they still languish behind bars.

Back in 1970, 73 percent of U.S. counties had no women in jail at all, and there were fewer than 8,000 women in jails nationwide. In 2014, there were more than 110,000. It's unclear what's responsible for this trend, but it desperately needs to be addressed.

Jails don't tend to be designed with the needs of women, particularly single mothers, in mind, which makes it more difficult for women to get through their time in jail and adjust to life after they get out. Women often enter with problems that require treatment. 53 percent have medical issues, 32 percent suffer from serious mental illnesses, 86 percent have survived sexual violence, and 77 percent have been victims of intimate partner violence. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault while they're in jail, and many procedures that happen in jail, like searches and supervised showers, can be triggering for survivors. Female jailmates also often find themselves without menstrual supplies or reproductive health care. "Spending time in jail can be a deeply traumatizing experience for women," the report reads.

The report calls on governments to provide services to women in need of mental health treatment, rehabilitation, and housing rather than putting them in jail as a substitute. "Local jurisdictions should reserve jail incarceration as a last resort for women who are deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety," it reads."A foundation for reform exists and can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails. First, however, justice systems — both small and large — and community stakeholders must commit to bringing women into the discussion."

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Photo Credit: Glamour/Netflix