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).


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.


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.




– The Spotlight series highlights the research of female economists, one at a time.-

One of my daydreams is to write an awesome economic history paper. We’ll see when that comes true, but meanwhile, let me tell you about Leah Boustan. Leah is a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at UCLA. Her interests span economic history, labor economics, and urban economics. Her research focuses on the Great Black Migration from the American South during and after WW II and the mass migration from Europe to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In her 2010 QJE paper, Leah analyzes post-WW II suburbanization and “white flight” in the United States. “The distinctive American pattern—in which blacks live in cities and whites in suburbs—was enhanced by a large black migration from the rural South” during World War II and the subsequent decades. “Between 1940 and 1970, four million black migrants left the South, increasing the black population share in northern and western cities from 4% in 1940 to 16% in 1970. Over the same period, the median nonsouthern city lost 10% of its white population.” Leah shows that “white departures from central cities were, in part, a response to black in-migration. In every decade, cities that received a larger flow of black migrants also lost a larger number of white residents.” She estimates that each black arrival led to 2.7 white departures and “rules out an indirect effect on housing prices as a sole cause.” Reminds me of the contrasting experience of modern San Francisco.

Leah is also a Research Associate of the NBER, a Research Associate of the California Center for Population Research, and an External Research Fellow of the Center for Research and Analysis of Migration, University College London. She is currently on the editorial boards of the American Economic Review, Explorations in Economic History, Historical Methods, Journal of the European Economic Association, and the Journal of Urban Economics. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and A.B. from Princeton University.

For more interesting papers and some cool black and white photographs from the past check out Leah’s website.