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Prisons: Prisons for Women - Population Increases

drug offenses crime property

Enormous increases in population characterize prisons for women since the mid-1980s. In 1980, 12,300 women were imprisoned in state and federal institutions, rising to 44,065 in 1990 and to 75,000 women in 1996. By 1998, this number had risen to 84,427, an almost fourfold increase in just under twenty years. In addition, approximately 64,000 women were incarcerated in local jails and over 700,000 were on probation, parole, or community supervision. In total, nearly 850,000 women were under some form of criminal justice supervision in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999a, 1999b). In California alone, the female prison population rose dramatically from 1,316 in 1980, to almost 12,000 in 1999. During 1998, Texas incarcerated over 10,000 women, New York prisons held just under 4,000, and Florida over 3,500. In the federal system, the women's prison population almost doubled from 5,011 in 1990 to 9,186 in 1998. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of women in U.S. prisons increased 92 percent compared to 67 percent increase in the number of men (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999a).

This explosion in the women's prison population cannot be explained by looking at the crime rate of women only. Compared to men, women generally commit fewer crimes and their offenses tend to be less serious. A major gender difference is the low rate of violent crime committed by women. The offenses for which women are arrested and incarcerated are primarily nonviolent property and drug offenses. When women do commit acts of violence, it is most likely against a spouse or partner and in the context of self-defense. In analyzing data from the 1970–1995 Uniform Crime Reports, Steffensmeir and Allan found that drug offenses have had the most significant impact on female arrest rates. Sharp increases in the numbers of women arrested for minor property crimes, like larceny, fraud, and forgery, have also contributed to the explosion in women's imprisonment. Many women resort to minor property crime in order to support their drug use. In addition to increased prosecution of drug offenses, the lack of viable treatment and alternative community sanctions for women has contributed to this unprecedented increase in women's population (Bloom, Chesney-Lind, and Owen). Most criminologists see that the war on drugs, a drug control policy started at the federal level in the 1980s, accounts for the unprecedented rise in the imprisonment of women.

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