featured, Incarceration of Women, News, Rising Black Female Jail Population, U.S. Mass Incarceration, Vera Institute of Justice Study -

Study: Minor Offenses, Broken Windows Policing to Blame for Rising Jail Population of Black Women

featured, Incarceration of Women, News, Rising Black Female Jail Population, U.S. Mass Incarceration, Vera Institute of Justice Study -

Study: Minor Offenses, Broken Windows Policing to Blame for Rising Jail Population of Black Women

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While the spotlight is often put on the alarmingly high incarceration rates of African-American men, a new study shows it might time to shift our attention to the rising incarceration of Black women.

According to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge, women are among the fastest growing populations in U.S. jails. The nation’s female prison population has made quite the jump, starting at just under 8,000 in 1970 and skyrocketing to over 110,000 by 2014.

The study, titled “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” found that African-American women make up about 44 percent of women in jail, outnumbering their white and Latino counterparts at 36 percent and 16 percent respectively.

“Like men in jail, [women] are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use,” the report reads.

Researchers also found that nearly 80 percent of women in jail are mothers who act as the primary caregivers of their young, dependent children.

So how did so many women end up in jail all of a sudden? Researchers attribute the exponential rise of female inmates to the increasingly common practice of jailing women for non-violent, low-level offenses. Missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing a drug test, or failure to show up in court for a traffic citation are just a few reasons women end up behind bars. Unsurprisingly, Black women are jailed at higher rates for these crimes.

“Women often become involved with the justice system as a result of efforts to cope with life challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and significant physical or behavioral health struggles, including those related to past histories of trauma, mental illness, or substance use,” the study states.

For instance, over half of women in jail report having a current medical condition. Another 82 percent of jailed women say they’ve battled with some type of drug or alcohol abuse in their lifetime, according to the study. By the time many of these women are locked up, 86 percent have been victims of sexual violence; 77 percent said they experienced partner violence, while 60 percent fell prey to caregiver violence.

While the numbers are staggering, authors of the study aimed to highlight the issue of female mass incarceration and its detrimental effect on society. In the words of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “We know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.”

Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate at Vera, and one of the authors of the study, explained to NewsOne that research for the study began over a year ago. However, she said she felt it was important to explore information that focused on the untouched topic of female incarceration.

“Oftentimes when we talk about mass incarceration, we focus on prisons, not local jails,” she said. “When we looked at women, there was a 14-fold increase.”

“We felt they (women) had to be part of the conversation, or we would miss a real opportunity,” she continued.

Swavola also said it was necessary to shift the attention to women because their incarceration has longer-lasting effects on families and communities. According to the study, female incarceration is often linked to weakened ties with children and missed opportunities for economic growth.

Mental health treatment in jails is also cause for concern. The study reports that approximately 32 percent of women behind bars suffer from serious mental illness. Oftentimes, correctional facilities don’t have the time, money, or resources to provide these women with the mental health care they need. The high profile case of Sandra Bland recently shed light on the importance of adequate mental heath treatment in jails.

To conclude their report, the authors provided a list of recommendations to reduce the number of women in jail. These suggestions include amending policies that enforce the persecution of low-level crimes; assigning adequate legal counsel in the beginning stages of a case; and alternatives or diversion programs instead of jail time that forces women away from their families, News One reports.

“As we think about women in jail, we need to think about the impact on communities,” Swavola said. “We (Vera Institute) feel we must be a part of the conversation.”


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