America’s Growing Gender Jail Gap

By Jacob Kang-Brown and Olive Lu, NYR Daily

In the course of Howard’s work to dismantle mass incarceration, a glaring fact has become clear: while today far fewer men are going to jail than before, the number of women getting incarcerated has stayed stubbornly high. And as a proportion of the US prison and jail populations, women are increasing. (To define the distinction: jails are run by cities or counties and are used mostly for pretrial detention; state-operated prisons usually hold people sentenced to more than a year of incarceration.)

Nationwide, the number of people booked into jail each year is dropping—down by more than a fifth, from 13.6 million in 2008 to 10.6 million in 2016. Over that same period, the number of new admissions to state and federal prisons fell 12 percent. But these declines apply only to men. Since peaking at nearly 11 million in 2008, jail admissions for men declined 26 percent to 8.2 million in 2016. Meanwhile, as many women are locked into jail cells each year as there were in 2008, around 2.5 million per year. In 1983, women made up just under 9 percent of people admitted to jail. By 2000, that share had grown to 15 percent; and in 2016, women comprised 23 percent of all admissions. These numbers, drawn from our analysis of official Bureau of Justice Statistics data, have not been previously reported.

Overall, incarceration rates are declining—just not for women. For them, things actually appear to be worsening across the country. This is particularly true in the smallest communities. According to our analysis, women’s jail admissions in rural areas increased 45 percent between 2000 and 2013, while in urban areas they were up 13 percent. By contrast, during the same period, men’s jail admissions in rural areas were down 1 percent and in cities they fell 24 percent. This shows that a deepening divide between high and rising rural incarceration rates and declining urban incarceration rates is heavily gendered.

The Century Regional Detention Facility is the largest jail for women in the nation, Los Angeles County, California

The Century Regional Detention Facility is the largest jail for women in the nation, Los Angeles County, California

Compared to people in prison usually serving multi-year sentences, people sent to local jails tend to stay only a couple of weeks. These short stays, however, are highly consequential: people held in jail are less able to prepare an effective defense, and more likely to plead guilty. Jail stays also often mean the loss of jobs, housing, and even custody of children. While people with jail sentences usually do not lose the right to vote, unlike many people with felony prison sentences, jail incarceration decreases voter turnout, potentially impacting election results.

Alternatives to incarceration, diversion efforts, bail reform, sentencing reform, and new re-entry programs have failed to reduce the number of women sent to jail each year. For example, according to FBI statistics, between 2008 and 2017 drug arrests for men dropped by 9 percent, while drug arrests for women increased 29 percent. The pressure of increasing numbers of women entering the system, combined with requirements for gender separation in jail facilities, have led many cities and counties to “address” the problem simply by building more jail cells for women.

A variety of new initiatives devised by nonprofits and local governments have aimed to meet women’s needs and allow them to resolve criminal cases without extended jail sentences. However, a recent evaluation of one such women’s “diversion program,” as they are known, in rural Tennessee found that potential participants saw serving a sentence in jail as preferable to enrolling in the program. In general, where diversion programs exist, fees in the thousands of dollars preclude otherwise eligible people from enrolling.

Almost two out of every three women in jail have not been convicted of a crime, and are awaiting resolution of their cases. In many parts of the country, women remain in jail primarily because they are unable to afford bail. For example, in Texas, the number of women jailed pretrial has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2011, in large part due to an inability to post bond. A study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median income for women who cannot make bond is almost 30 percent lower than that of men who cannot make bond. Bail exacerbates inequality by turning the gender pay gap into a gender jail gap.

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