Why are more women in the U.S. being incarcerated?

After years of decline, more women are going to prison across the United States. Experts explain why.

Photo illustration of black-and-white images of barbed wire, fingerprints and part of a face against orange background.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in November revealed that for the first time in almost a decade, U.S. prison populations have increased — namely among women. Advocates for prison reform are calling the uptick a “war on women” that’s getting worse for certain groups over time.

“Women were not historically considered as culpable for crimes, because of a larger patriarchy at force that sort of benefited women in this one area,” Ashley Nellis, co-director of research at the Sentencing Project — a nonprofit organization that advocates for an “end to extreme punishments” — explained to Yahoo News. “Now it’s not considered to be as taboo for law enforcement, courts and judges to lay a heavy hand on women.”

According to the Sentencing Project, the crimes that most women are convicted of are property- or drug-related. Dominique Grant, a campaign and community organizer for Women on the Rise, an Atlanta-based organization that serves justice-impacted women of color, explained to Yahoo News that the residuals of the Reagan-era campaign to wage a “War on Drugs” and the new opioid crisis expanded the policing of women.

Female lawyer and prisoner in orange jumpsuit sitting in prison visiting room.
Female lawyer and prisoner in orange jumpsuit sitting in prison visiting room. (Getty Images)

By the numbers

  • The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by more than 525% from 1980 (26,326) to 2021 (168,449).

  • At least 80% of women who have been sentenced to more than a year in state or federal correctional facilities are age 30 or older.

  • In 2021, Black women were imprisoned at 1.6 times the rate of white women, the Sentencing Project found.

  • In 2021, Latinx women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women.

  • The rate of imprisonment for white women has increased by 12%.

“At this rate, it would take about 75 years to get back to pre-mass incarceration time,” Nellis said. “The pace of decarceration is so slow that there will be a whole new generation that’s been affected by it.”

Nellis explains while some states are making inroads in decarceration, the work done is not happening quickly enough and there are factors that need to be addressed to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Generational pipeline and trauma

A 2016 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over half of women in U.S. prisons are mothers with children under the age of 18.

“When you have a system where peak incarceration has gone up by 500%, that’s also families that have gone up 500% that are being impacted by the criminal justice system, that are being impacted by having a sister or a mother in the system. Typically, when a mom is incarcerated, the child has to go into the custody or the care of someone who may not know the family and they are inserted into Child Protective Services, which affects families,” Grant explained.

With such a large portion of people who are considered primary caregivers in the carceral system, Grant warns against the intergenerational pipeline to incarceration.

“My grandmother was arrested and incarcerated and she didn’t have anyone to take care of my father and my aunt,” Grant shared. “They were left to fend for themselves. Ultimately, that led to them having lives filled with incarceration, trauma or substance use disorders. Now they have children that they’re not present for.”

Lack of resources

Young brunette curly woman in orange suit. Female in colorful overalls portrait
Young brunette curly woman in orange suit. Female in colorful overalls portrait (Getty Images)

Nellis says that for most women who have been affected by the criminal justice system, their primary offenses are poverty driven. The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit think tank focused on criminal justice, says that over half of women are more likely to be unemployed in the month before an arrest.

“It’s really for systems outside the correction systems to handle, like providing better housing and resources for women with children, ramping up public assistance, ending structural racism, those kinds of things that are sort of outside the criminal legal system are the ones that really should be focused on,” Nellis explains.

Grant adds that making sure women earn livable wages and have access to social services so they can survive and sustain economically would significantly reduce the prison population and chances of reentry.

A Women & Health report released in 2014 stated that women who are incarcerated have a higher risk of mental health problems than women who are not in the criminal legal system and typically turn to substance abuse.

Grant recalls a time when she was suffering severely from mental health crises and researched psychedelics as a way to cope.

“I’m thinking that I’m taking the appropriate steps to take care of my mental health and I came in contact with the system,” Grant shared. She ended up with a Class A felony and was arrested for the first time.

Expansion of law enforcement

As new policies, like the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and laws to combat the immigration and opioid crises are being ushered in, more states are creating pathways for women to enter the legal system. Stiff penalties for nonviolent crimes have also been left in place. The Equal Justice Initiative adds that reforms in policy “have led to mandatory or ‘dual’ arrests for fighting back against domestic violence, increasing criminalization of school-aged girls’ misbehavior, and the criminalization of women who support themselves through sex work.”

Nellis advises that when women come in contact with the legal system, the effort should be placed toward diverting that woman from the system and getting to the root cause of why they are committing an offense in the first place.