How Our Criminal Justice System is Failing Women

Women comprise a little over half of the overall population in the United States, yet they commit crime at a far lower rate th

Women comprise a little over half of the overall population in the United States, yet they commit crime at a far lower rate than men. In total, women commit around 20 percent of crimes in our country. They are also far less likely than men to commit what people consider serious crimes.


Yet, when women do enter our criminal justice system, they often do so in the face of many challenges, including sexual abuse and lack of quality reproductive care. Studies also suggest that incarcerating women at high rates can have a terrible impact on their children. Unfortunately, these problems have increased over the past few decades, as the number of female prisoners has skyrocketed in that time.


The number of women in prison has increased by more than six times in the last 30 years. The growth rate of female imprisonment has exceeded the rate of male imprisonment by more than 50 percent over the same period.


Most women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses or property crimes. Around 54 percent of male prisoners are convicted of violent crimes, compared to only 34 percent of female prisoners. Incarcerated women have higher rates of drug offenses (24 percent compared to 15 percent of men) and property crimes (28 percent compared to 19 percent of men).


These demographics are important because so many of our criminal justice reform efforts in the United States are aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in our prisons. Those efforts would dramatically reduce the number of women in jails and prisons.


Women are more likely than men to have children dependent on them, and this is especially true in our prison population. Six out of every 10 women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. Other statistics say that 80 percent of women behind bars are mothers. Children of incarcerated parents face several challenges, including family instability, displacement and material hardship. Studies suggest that many incarcerated parents are deeply involved in their children’s lives prior to imprisonment.


Women have lower rates of committing another offense after being released from prison. One study of women in Florida prisons found that within three years of being released, male prisoners have a 34 percent recidivism rate, while female prisoners have only a 19 percent recidivism rate. That study reflects findings in other states that women are less likely to commit a crime after spending time in jail or prison.


Women are more likely than men to be victims of sexual abuse both before a conviction and during their time in prison. Around 86 percent of women in jails report having experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. The way in which women are treated by male staffers in prison can cause re-traumatization for women who have experienced sexual abuse in the past.


Our current criminal justice system is often designed to address the needs of male prisonersand, thus, can make life more challenging for women prisoners. Assessment tools used by parole boards to determine the likelihood of committing another crime are generally not designed to accommodate the needs of women. The bail process is more difficult for women, since they typically earn less money than men. Many prisons and jails also fail to meet the reproductive health needs of women.

While some of these challenges reflect problems facing all prisoners in the United States over recent decades, many of them are disproportionately impacting women. Some reformers go so far as to say that female prisons, or at least most of them, should be shut down completely. But even those in favor of less bold action still recognize the need for major reforms in how our criminal justice system treats women.



From the Author: Wolfe & Stec, Ltd