Drug-Law Violations Account for Over a Quarter of Women Incarcerated in the US

    Over a quarter of incarcerated women are charged with or convicted of drug-law violations, according to a new report on the status of incarcerated women in the United States, authored by Prison Policy Initiative and ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

    Approximately 58,200 women are incarcerated in local jails, state prisons and federal prisons for a drug-law violation—out of 219,000 incarcerated women in total. Although the total number of incarcerated women in the US remains much lower than the total number of incarcerated men, the incarcerated female population has grown at twice the rate of the incarcerated male population in recent years.

    The report identifies an acute issue faced by incarcerated women: Nearly half are held in local jails, and a quarter have not yet had a trial. That’s in contrast to the total incarcerated population, in which twice as many people are in the state prison systems as are held in jails.

    Why the discrepancy? Researchers at the Prison Policy Initiative hypothesize that the rate of women held in jail pre-trial may be high due to income disparity: Incarcerated women have lower incomes, on average, than incarcerated men, and are therefore less likely to be able to afford cash bail.

    While more than a quarter of women incarcerated were charged with drug-law violations, violent offenses also account for roughly a quarter. “This new data on women underlines the need for reform discussions to focus not just on the easier choices,” write the authors of the report, “but on the policy changes that will have the most impact.”

    That means, in part, not arguing for drug policy reform at the expense of people charged with violent crimes, but also not accepting mass criminalization—over a million women are on probation and parole—as an acceptable “alternative” for mass incarceration.

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