By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Senior Correspondent
The United States incarcerates more of it citizens than any developed nation in the world. And while men comprise the majority of those imprisoned, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980, according to The Sentencing Project, which estimates that 976,000 women are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
The nonprofit organization documented a 525 percent increase in women’s imprisonment in America between 1980 and 2021; the vast majority are Black females.
“As this year marks 50 years since the United States began its dramatic increase in imprisonment, it is clearer than ever that our criminal legal system is not working,” Amy Fettig, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said in a statement. “The continued overcriminalization of women and girls does nothing to improve public safety but needlessly destroys lives, families, and communities.”
In 2021, the Sentencing Project reported that the imprisonment rate for Black women – at 62 per 100,000 – was 1.6 times the rate of imprisonment for white women – 38 per 100,000.
Latinx women were imprisoned 49 per 100,000 or 1.3 times the rate of white women.
Additionally, 58 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18.
While the overall imprisonment for Black and Latinx women has declined since 2000 and increased for white women over that same period, Black and Native American girls remain more likely to face incarceration than white, Asian, and Latinx girls.
Over one-third of incarcerated girls are held for status offenses, like truancy and curfew violations, or for violating probation.
The statistics compiled by The Sentencing Project arrive after several reports revealed mass incarceration’s heavy burden on Black women in general.
“The war on drugs treated Black women as if they were just collateral consequences,” Ashley McSwain, executive director of Community Family Life Services, which serves formerly incarcerated women, said during a panel discussion on mass incarceration. “We were well into this war and this crisis before we realized that women were being affected at alarming rates. When you arrest a woman, you got her, her three kids, her grandma, an aunt — everybody’s incarcerated when a woman goes to prison. So, the impact is huge, and we never seem to talk about that.”
Three years ago, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute partnered with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and The Sentencing Project to co-lead the Alice Project, an initiative to end the extreme punishment of women in America and globally.
The group worked to get advocates, researchers, activists, and academics to work together to get rid of gender bias in extreme sentences.
One such advocate has been U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass), who has been vocal on the topic.
“There are 113 million Americans who know what it’s like to see their loved one behind bars — even more if we broaden the definition of family,” Pressley wrote on her website. “Imagine if these millions of people voted as an entire bloc in 2020, demanding that their candidates — for President, Congress, state legislatures, and judges — were dedicated to passing comprehensive and bold criminal justice reform? Such a powerful movement would help to end the oppression and exploitation in our prison systems.”
And while the disproportionate impact on mass incarceration on Black communities is nothing new as the mass incarceration of Black men has long put a strain on families and resources, the growing rate of imprisoned women now only exacerbates a worsening problem.
“Black women – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives — often must choose between posting bail for their loved ones and missing important bills or allowing a loved one to languish in jail, Rep. Pressley said. “Sometimes, when their romantic partner or co-parent is behind bars, Black women are forced to provide for their families alone.”