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Incarcerated Women and Girls

November 30, 2015
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. Women now comprise a larger proportion of the prison population than ever before; the female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than its population count 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 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014.2)Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rise in Women’s Incarceration, 1985-2014
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 2014. (2015). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced men by more than 50% between 1980 and 2014. There are 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Women Under Control of the U.S. Corrections System, 2014
Source: Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Minton, T.D., and Zeng, Z. (2015). Jail Inmates at Midyear 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Kaeble, D., Maruschak, LM, and Bonczar (2015). Probation and Parole in the United States, 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Race and Ethnicity

  • In 2014, the imprisonment rate for African American women (109 per 100,000) was more than twice the rate of imprisonment for white women (53 per 100,000).3)Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.2 times the rate of white women (64 vs. 53 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 women continues to rise.
  • Between 2000 and 2014, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons declined by 47% for black women, while the rate of imprisonment for white women rose by 56%.
Female Imprisonment Rate per 100,000, by Race and Ethnicity, 2000-2014
Source: Prisoners Series. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Imprisonment Rates by Gender, Race, and Ethnicity per 100,000:  2000 vs. 2014
2000 2014 % Change
White Women 34 53 56% increase
Men 449 465 4% increase
African American Women 205 109 47% decrease
  Men 3,457 2,724 21% decrease
Hispanic Women 60 64 7% increase
  Men 1,220 1,091 11% decrease
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, 65 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2014.5)Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state with the highest rate of female imprisonment is Oklahoma (142) and the state with the lowest incarceration rate of females is Rhode Island (12).

Female Incarceration Rates (per 100,000) by State, 2014
Source: Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Offense Types for Men and Women in State Prisons

Incarceration Offense Type by Gender, 2014
Source: Carson, E.A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-four percent of female prisoners have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 15% of male prisoners; 28% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 19% among incarcerated men.
  • In 1986, 12% of women in state prisons were incarcerated for a drug offense; by 2014, 24% were incarcerated for a drug offense.

Incarcerated Girls

  • Of the 54,148 youth in residential placement, 14.3% (7,727) are girls.
  • As with all youth confinement, girls are confined considerably less frequently than 20 years ago. At the peak year, 2001, 15,104 girls were confined in residential placement settings. By 2013, this figure had been cut in half (7,727).
  • White girls have experienced a more substantial decline in youth placements than African American girls. From 1997 to 2013, the white percentage of confined girls dropped from 49% to 41%; among black girls, however, it dropped from 34% to 31%.
  • Girls represent a high proportion of those who are confined for low-level crimes such as status offenses and technical violations, behaviors that would not be considered illegal if committed by an adult (such as skipping school or running away).
Highest Incarceration Rates
State Rate
National 50
Wyoming 209
West Virginia 159
South Dakota 161
North Dakota 136
Nebraska 119
Lowest Incarceration Rates
State Rate
National 50
Massachusetts 10
Rhode Island 12
New Jersey 13
Tennessee 15
Connecticut 19
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.
Youth Offense Type by Gender, 2013
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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