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Women Are The Fastest Growing Population In U.S. Jails

Aug. 18, 2016

Most of the women in jail are single mothers or women of color

The number of women in jails is growing at a faster rate than that of men, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

Between 1970 and 2014, the number of women in jail grew from 8,000 to almost 110,000, with most of them awaiting trial or serving short sentences for low-level crimes or misdemeanors, including drug- or probation-related offenses. Nearly 80% of those women are single mothers and 64% are women of color, the report notes.

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The spike in the number of women behind bars came primarily from smaller rural counties in the U.S. “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 says.

Most of the women in jails are poor and struggle with mental health issues, the report notes. And 82% have suffered from some kind of alcohol or drug dependence, the report says.

“In those communities, they rely on incarceration to deal with people with mental and behavioral challenges,” Liz Swavola, one of the researchers who worked on the report, told NPR. But, the report says, most of the women leave jail “far worse off than when they entered the jailhouse door.”

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The Vera Institute conducted the report to spark “conversations about how to stop growing numbers of women cycling through U.S. jails,” noting that there’s little research or attention paid to the number or treatment of women in jail. Because of that lack of research, the report says, jails just aren’t equipped to handle the challenges women face before and during their stay.

“We need to think think about how to support women and help them to succeed,” Swayola told NPR. “Reforms are not reaching women.”