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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 21, 2016 10:29 pm

Incarcerated women skyrocketing

Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette

The rate at which women have been jailed in Indiana has exploded in the last four decades, far outpacing the growth of men and greater than the national rate, according to a new study.

The number of women in Indiana jails – 2,700 – is 25 times what it was in 1970, according to a report released last week by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In comparison, the nationwide female jail population is 14 times as large as it was in 1970, growing from less than 8,000 to nearly 110,000.

Using data through 2014, the report calls the national rise "a stark contrast to 1970, when 73 percent of counties held not a single woman in jail."

Most of the women are mothers, a third have a serious mental illness, most are people of color and the vast majority are in for nonviolent offenses, the report states. It attributes much of the growth to small counties of under 250,000 people.

"As this report shows, the women cycling through America’s jails are disproportionately suffering from problems that jail time can make worse rather than fix – including trauma, mental illness, and poverty," Julia Stasch, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement.

The study notes a lack of research on why the number of women in jail is growing. But an IPFW professor points to more women working and an increase in female police officers, who are more apt to arrest women, as possible reasons.

While men far outnumber women in Hoosier jails, their numbers have grown at a slower pace, with slightly more than six times as many male inmates than in 1970, the study’s figures show. About 14,700 men were jailed in Indiana in 2014.

Locally, Allen County went from two women jailed in 1970 to 153 in 2014, according to the Vera figures. While the numbers are much smaller, increases at other northeast Indiana jails are no less dramatic. Many held fewer than five women in 1990, climbing to no fewer than 12 and as many as 49 by 2014.

The Allen County Jail does not have a demographic breakdown of its female population, said Capt. Steve Stone, sheriff’s department spokesman. The only separate statistic is that women spend, on average, nine days and seven hours in the jail, or about half the time men do.

National statistics show most women are held on lower-level property and drug offenses, though that information is more than a decade old.

Women tend to have less extensive criminal histories than men, and 80 percent are mothers, most of them single parents responsible for their young children, the report states.

Vera places most of the increase on small counties, where women incarceration rates increased from 79 per 100,000 in 2000 to 140 per 100,000 in 2014. During the same period, rates in large counties decreased from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

In Allen County, the rate went from 91.9 to 127 per 100,000 women in the same period, according to the report.

Jospeter M. Mbuba, an associate professor in IPFW’s College of Education and Public Policy, said laws that require the arrest of both parties in domestic violence incidents and more female police officers could be contributing to more women inmates.

In addition, more women have late-night jobs, which might lead to criminal activity, Mbuba said in an email response.

"Today, thanks to gender equality, women can seek employment anywhere and can also work third shift," he said. "This equality has opened up avenues for ‘crimes of opportunity’ in ways that have not been experienced before."