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Women Behind Bars : Reflecting a national trend, incarcerations at three O.C. facilities are rising dramatically. Explanations range from an increase in drug use, violent and white collar crimes, to the economy, to a less tolerant society. The accelerating figures are taking their toll on the system.

November 02, 1994|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — It's jarring at first, but they say you get used to it. At the entrance to the Orange County Women's Jail, a pair of heavy cell doors slam shut with a sound that rings through the facility like an empty metal box.

But as you approach the first cellblock, it's clear that this is not an empty place.

Inside the large, blue-gray cell are several woman wearing jumpsuits. They are reading, chatting and putting on makeup, bunking in barred dorm rooms while they wait to see a judge.

They're invisible to most. Yet the many female inmates who crowd the cell are vivid reminders that the Orange County Women's Jail in the downtown Civic Center is not as empty as its echo suggests.

For a variety of complex reasons, the number of women incarcerated in Orange County has risen dramatically in the past two years.

The average daily population in the three county facilities housing women is up by well over a third, recording an average of 569 women incarcerated each day. Before the increase, the number stayed fairly constant, hovering around the 420 mark from 1988 to 1992.

Judges, prosecutors and correction officials offer a number of explanations for the recent surge: drugs, increased violence, the economy or even the possibility that society doesn't excuse women anymore because of their sex. Statistics show they're all partly responsible.

"I don't know how you can point to any one thing that's causing it," says Huntington Beach Police patrol Sgt. Bill Peterson, a 25-year law enforcement veteran.

"Certainly the economy and lack of viable employment have something to do with it. What we're seeing on patrol is a lot more women doing shoplifting-type crimes, and just a lot more theft involving women," he said.

Peterson says he and the officers he supervises on patrol have noticed more drug use and violent crime involving women. He added that he's also noted in the past two years an increase in women involved in white-collar crime.

"That's something recent," Peterson said. "But they're doing those crimes too, especially with credit cards."

The increase here is in line with state and national trends, which indicate that women everywhere are committing more crime. They begin their time in temporary jails, many of them moving on to permanent prison facilities to serve sentences for more serious offenses.

"We've all talked it over here, because the increase is very interesting," said Orange County Asst. Dist. Atty. John D. Conley. "We don't have a simple answer."

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While men still dominate the jail and prison system here and throughout the United States, national figures show that total arrests of men have increased only 5.2% from 1988 to 1992, while the total for women jumped 14.4% during the same period.

Sue Alvis, inmate records manager for the Orange County Jail, calls the recent increase here a "horrendous jump" that continues to push the number of female inmates way over the rate of capacity. The Orange County Women's Jail is supposed to hold 265 inmates, but so far this year the jail has averaged 329 women per day.

Alvis says the accelerating figures take their toll on the system, while fueling the already controversial topic of jail crowding.

"We constantly have people waiting for a bed," Alvis said. "You just do what you can."

Doing what they can often means putting additional bunks in the already crowded dorm cells and giving well-behaved inmates an "early kick" by automatically releasing them three days before their sentences are completed, Alvis said.

Because the women's jail facilities in Orange County have become so crowded in the past few years, jail officials twice a month automatically subtract five days from the sentences of all female inmates, she added.

Across the state, the number of women in the three California Department of Correction prisons has quadrupled in the past decade and increased tenfold from 1971 to 1991.

A new women's prison is scheduled for completion in 1995 near the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, at the cost of $152 million, says CDC spokesman Bill Gengler.

"All three of the women's facilities are well over the designed rate of capacity," Gengler said. "We wouldn't build it if we didn't think we could fill it."

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A Justice Department study involving 8,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the country reported 256% more women in state and federal prisons from 1980 to 1990, compared with a 140% increase in the male prison population.

The study recorded that arrests of women on serious felony charges are also on the rise throughout America, climbing 32.5% from 1988 to 1992, reaching almost 63,000. Spokeswoman Traci Snell said the figure is significant but still considerably lower than the 452,453 men placed behind bars for violent crimes in 1992.

Most law enforcement officials agree that the system has begun to crack down on female offenders during recent years. They say that today's national anti-crime climate has put a stop to any kind of preferential treatment based on sex.

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