Women May Be Overlooked In the Justice System, But They Are Not Forgotten

By Holly Harris, Executive Director

On August 17, the day before the anniversary of women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge released a disturbing report detailing the skyrocketing rate of jailed women. For too long, this trend has been underreported and overlooked. Now that we have a better insight into what’s driving this growing sector of the justice system, we must have a national discussion on the issue, seek ways to successfully return many of these women to society, and ensure we aren’t putting women behind bars who would see better outcomes with smart alternatives to jail.

In 1970, fewer than 8,000 women were in jail. Today that number has ballooned to about 110,000. The Vera study shows the majority of women in jail are behind bars for low-level, nonviolent offenses, including property and drug crimes and public order offenses. The number of women jailed for violating parole or probation is also on the rise. And most of these women have entered a system designed for men, ill-equipped to handle the different health, treatment and rehabilitation needs of women.

According to the report, nearly a third of the incarcerated female population have a serious mental illness and more than 80 percent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Instead of treating the diseases at the root of the problem, we are isolating these women in jail and often exacerbating their problems. And when women are released, they return to society with an inability to find jobs, support their children (79 percent have young children), or lead crime-free lives. So they renew old habits, often return to crime and return to jail, and the cycle of failure continues.

Minority women are even more disproportionately impacted. Vera reports that two-thirds of women in local jails are persons of color.

In light of these statistics, it’s important to hear the human stories. Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Action Network and its sister organization, the Coalition for Public Safety, shared with you personal snapshots of women from across the country who served time behind bars. We encourage you to revisit the stories of Michelle, Patrice, and Carolyn, and we hope you’ll feel inspired by their refusal to be defined by their past. We must continue lifting up these voices and those of the thousands of other impacted women with the hopes that their stories can help change laws, and change lives.

And while the national conversation is just beginning, reform champions in the states are already working. In Oklahoma, where the female incarceration rate is highest in the country, Gov. Mary Fallin became the first governor in the nation to specifically address the issue in her State of the State speech. We worked closely with Gov. Fallin to pass a package of justice reform measures last year, and we featured her visit to Tulsa’s Women in Recovery center in our film, Changing Laws, Changing Lives.”

Premiered at the Republican National Committee, the U.S. Justice Action Network’s “Changing Laws, Changing Lives” video features state justice reform efforts spearheaded by Governors Nathan Deal of Georgia, Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.

These governors have each led efforts to pass legislation (with bipartisan support) aimed at reducing their costly prison populations and breaking down barriers so individuals leaving prison can get back to work, support their families and lead productive, redeemed lives. Our hope with this video is that the rest of the country, and indeed the federal government, will listen to these voices, and follow their lead.

We know from a decade of reform work in the states that measures to safely reduce the prison population and improve the reentry process for those who have served time lowers crime and recidivism rates. Simply put, reform makes us safer. Now we need to direct and tailor new efforts specifically toward the alarming number of women entering our justice system. We hope you’ll join us and urge your elected officials to take action.

During the month when we celebrate women’s suffrage in America, we can do better to help tens of thousands of American women take full advantage of the foundation of that achievement: freedom.

Check out our “Women in the Justice System” series to read first-hand accounts of women’s experiences in the criminal justice system:


The U.S. Justice Action Network is the first action organization in the country to bring together progressive and conservative partners, collaborate with law enforcement, and employ federal and state-specific lobbying, public advocacy, and public education efforts to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms.