According to a new study by The Sentencing Project, “The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration,” women’s incarceration rates have outpaced those of men over the last decade. Though representing a small fraction of the prison population, “The number of women incarcerated in state or federal prisons rose by 21.6% compared to a 15.6% increase for men,” the report says.
The study looked at data from 2000 to 2010, among African-American, Hispanic, and white men and women. Incarceration across the board has slowed down. The report credits a number of factors such as, “treatment diversion programs, sentence reduction incentives for participation in prison programming, enhanced reentry support, and reduced technical violations of parole.”
But the rates of incarceration for Hispanic and white women are on the rise. Since 2000, Hispanic women’s rates of incarceration rose by 23.3%, and white women’s by 47.1%.
“I think it’s two different stories,” Marc Mauer, who wrote the report, told me when I asked what explained the uptick.
First is a change in the war on drugs. In the past, he says African-Americans were overrepresented in prisons as a result of the crack epidemic. Now, drug enforcement has shifted to methamphetamine users, who are predominantly white and Hispanic, according to Mauer. Some states have mandatory sentencing for these users, which Mauer says is driving up the numbers.
The second reason white and Hispanic women have seen an increase in incarceration is the impact of the economic crisis. White women, particularly those who are uneducated or low-income, have a declining life expectancy, according to Mauer. “There are risk factors that come along with that: substance abuse, limited employment, limited access to health care, much more likely to become involved in criminal behavior.”
The changes in prison demographics revealed in this report highlight the need for policies and protocols that address the rising number of incarcerated women and their specific experiences within the justice system.