WASHINGTON — Though men still make up a vast majority of both state and federal prison populations, the percentage of female inmates nationwide is steadily increasing. According to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy group, between 2000 to 2009 the number of women incarcerated in state or federal prisons rose by 21.6 percent, compared to a 15.6 percent increase for men.
Data from The Sentencing Project shows just 13,000 women were incarcerated in all federal and state prisons in 1980, then comprising just 4 percent of the total prison population. That rate has risen by a staggering 646 percent in the 30 years following, while the rate for men has increased by 419 percent.
In 2010 there were roughly 112,000 women in state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Though that number decreased slightly in 2012 to just under 109,000 in federal and state systems, women today make up just under 7 percent of the federal prison population, with just over 205,000 incarcerated.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, says the women’s correctional population is increasing at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than those of men. These increases, he said, can be attributed in large part to changing drug enforcement policies and longer, harsher sentencing practices.
“As law enforcement increased targeting of drug law violators and as sentences for drug offenses became more severe, drug offenders came to represent a rapidly growing share of the incarcerated population, with the proportion of women in prison for drug crimes exceeding that of men,” wrote Mauer in the 2013 report. “In 1986, 12 percent of women in state prison were serving time for a drug offense compared to 8 percent of men. Over time, these proportions increased, and as of 2009, 25.7 percent of women in prison were serving time for drug offenses, as were 17.2 percent of men.”
Once incarcerated, many women continue to grapple with lingering trauma and mental health issues, which they had previously dealt with through drug use. According to The Sentencing Project, female inmates tend to have higher rates of mental illness, with an estimated 74 percent currently managing some level of mental health condition. Senior Staff Council at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Amy Fettig has linked these numbers to higher rates of physical and sexual abuse, often beginning in childhood and continuing through adulthood. “Too often, people do not receive the type of treatment they need in prison,” said Fettig.