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Incarcerated Women and Girls

May 10, 2018
Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.

Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980. More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.1)Glaze, L. E., and Maruschak, L. M. (2009). Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Between 1980 and 2016, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016.2)Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rise in Women’s Incarceration, 1980-2016
Sources: Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850-1984. (1986); Prison and Jail Inmates Series. (1997-2014.) Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Prisoners in 2016. (2018). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980. There are 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Women Under Control of the U.S. Corrections System, 2016
Source: Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Zeng, Z. (2018). Jail Inmates in 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Kaeble, D. (2018). Probation and Parole in the United States, 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Race and Ethnicity in Prisons

  • In 2016, the imprisonment rate for African American women (96 per 100,000) was twice the rate of imprisonment for white women (49 per 100,000).3)Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Hispanic women were imprisoned at 1.4 times the rate of white women (67 vs. 49 per 100,000).4)Carson, E.A. and Sabol, W.J. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • The rate of imprisonment for African American women has been declining since 2000, while the rate of imprisonment for white and Hispanic women continues to rise.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons declined by 53% for black women, while the rate of imprisonment for white women rose by 44%.
Female Imprisonment Rate per 100,000, by Race and Ethnicity, 2000-2016
Source: Prisoners Series. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Imprisonment Rates by Gender, Race, and Ethnicity per 100,000: 2000 vs. 2016
2000 2016 % Change
White Women 34 49 44% increase
Men 449 400 11% decrease
African American Women 205 96 53% decrease
Men 3,457 2,415 30% decrease
Hispanic Women 60 67 12% increase
  Men 1,220 1,092 10% increase
Source: Prisoners Series. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

State Variation

The rate at which women are incarcerated varies greatly from state to state. At the national level, 64 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2016.5)Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state with the highest rate of female imprisonment is Oklahoma (149) and the states with the lowest incarceration rates of females are Rhode Island (13) and Massachusetts (13).

Highest and Lowest Female State Imprisonment Rates (per 100,000), 2016
Source: Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Offense Types for Men and Women in State Prisons

  • Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-five percent of female prisoners have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14% of male prisoners; 27% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 17% among incarcerated men.
  • The proportion of women in prison for a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 25% in 2016.
Offense Type by Gender in State Prisons, 2016
Source: Carson, E.A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Incarcerated Girls

  • Of the 48,043 youth in residential placement, 15% (7,293) are girls.
  • As with boys, girls are confined considerably less frequently than at the start of the century. In 2001, 15,104 girls were confined in residential placement settings. By 2015, this figure had been cut in half.
  • Girls of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white girls. The placement rate for all girls is 47 per 100,000 girls (those between ages 12 and 17). For white girls, the rate is 32 per 100,000. Native girls (134 per 100,000) are more than four times as likely as white girls to be incarcerated; African American girls (110 per 100,000) are three-and-a-half times as likely; and Latina girls (44 per 100,000) are 38% more likely.
  • Though 85% of incarcerated youth are boys, girls makeup a much higher proportion of those incarcerated for the lowest level offenses. Thirty-eight percent of youth incarcerated for status offenses (such as truancy and curfew violations) are girls. More than half of youth incarcerated for running away are girls.
Highest and Lowest State Rates of Confinement for Girls (per 100,000), 2015
Highest Incarceration Rates
State Rate
National 47
Wyoming 197
West Virginia 175
South Dakota 138
Nebraska 137
Lowest Incarceration Rates
State Rate
National 47
New Jersey 7
Connecticut 10
Vermont 11
Maine 15
Source: Sickmund, M., Sladky, T.J., Kang, W., and Puzzanchera, C. (2017) “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.” Online. Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.
Girls Comprise a Growing Proportion of All Teen Arrests, 2016
Source: Sickmund, M., Sladky, M., Kang, T.J., and Puzzanchera, C. (2015). Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention.
 

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