Female Prisoners in the United States

The conversation around police brutality and racial bias in the US criminal justice system is mostly about men, which is reasonable since more than 90% of the inmates are male. Women comprised 7% of the prison population in 2010 as compared to 4% in 1980 (The Sentencing Project). Here, however, is a look at some trends for women. In terms of race AND gender, the group experiencing the sharpest increase in incarceration since 2002 is White Females, whereas Black Females experienced a sharp decline. The graph below, recently posted on Twitter, is from a paper-in-progress by economists Rajiv Sethi (Barnard College) and Glenn Loury (Brown University).

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The graph below, from The Sentencing Project, compares the number of female inmates by race. In absolute terms, female inmates are predominantly White, followed by Blacks and Hispanics.

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The pattern for women is different from that of men, where the bulk of incarcerated males are Black.

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As of 2009, nearly “25.7% of women in prison were serving time for drug offenses,” as compared to 17.2% of men. Another reason why more women than men are incarcerated for drug crimes is something called the “girlfriend” problem. It seems that “the only means of avoiding a mandatory penalty is generally to cooperate with the prosecution by providing information on higher-ups in the drug trade.” However, these women are in most cases involved in the drug trade because of a partner who is a drug seller and these “girlfriends” have relatively little information to trade in exchange for a more lenient sentence. “In contrast, the “boyfriend” drug seller is likely to be in a better position to offer information, and so may receive less prison time for his offense than does the less culpable woman.”

All this is not to suggest that race does not matter. But these trends do highlight the complexity of racial issues.”While these developments should not be taken to suggest that the era of mass incarceration of African Americans has ended by any means, it is nonetheless significant that there have been changes in this regard.” I hope to see more rigorous research on these dynamics in the near future.

For more details on the changing racial dynamics of female incarceration, read this report by The Sentencing Project.