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Data Show Surge in Female Inmates

May 21, 2006|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — Oklahoma, Mississippi and the Mountain states have set the pace in increasing imprisonment of women, while several Northeastern states are curtailing the practice, according to a new report detailing sharp regional differences in the handling of female offenders.

The report, to be released today by the New York-based Women's Prison Assn., is described as the most comprehensive state-by-state breakdown of the increase in incarceration of women over the last 30 years.

Overall, the number of female state inmates serving sentences of more than a year grew by 757% from 1977 to 2004, nearly twice the 388% increase for men, the report said.

Though the surge occurred nationwide, it was most notable in the Mountain states, where the number of incarcerated women soared by 1,600%, the report said.

Federal statistics cited in the report show Colorado had 72 female inmates in 1977 and 1,900 in 2004, while the comparable numbers increased from 28 to 647 in Idaho; from two to 473 in Montana; from 187 to 2,545 in Arizona; and from 30 to 502 in Utah.

Idaho, Wyoming and Montana were among six states, along with Oklahoma, North Dakota and Hawaii, where women made up more than 10% of the prison population in 2004, compared with the national average of 7%. In Rhode Island, by contrast, 3.2% of the inmates were women.

Oklahoma had the highest per capita imprisonment rate for women: 129 behind bars for every 100,000 women in its population. Mississippi was second, with a rate of 107. Women in those states were about 10 times more likely to be imprisoned than women in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which shared the lowest rate of 11.

Nationwide, there were 1.42 million inmates in state and federal prisons at the end of 2004, including 96,125 women -- up from 11,212 in 1977.

Though the overall surge of women behind bars has continued in recent years, it has tapered off in the Northeast, the report said. From 1999 to 2004, the number of female inmates dropped by 23% in New York and 21% in New Jersey -- part of broader reductions that also cut the number of male inmates.

The report concurred with previous analyses attributing much of the nationwide increase in women's imprisonment to the war on drugs. The proportion of women serving time for drug offenses has risen sharply in recent years, while the proportion convicted of serious violent crimes has dropped, it said.

Ann Jacobs, executive director of the Women's Prison Assn., said states with high rates of women behind bars should look closely at alternative sentencing, particularly mandatory treatment as an option for drug offenders.

The report urged an expansion of research to identify factors that have contributed to the increase of female inmates.

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