November 27, 2015

How can we reduce the number of women in prisons?

Since 1980, the number of women in US jails has risen by 646%; women now comprise 7% of America’s prison population. Compared to men this number may seem low, but female incarceration rates have grown 1.5 times faster than those of men.

In the UK, the female prison population almost trebled between 1993 and 2005. As of May 2015 there were almost 4,000 women incarcerated in England and Wales.

In the US, the war on drugs and politicians’ “tough on crime” stance in the 1980s and 1990s appear to have contributed to the sharp increase in convictions and sentences. Women commit twice as many property crimes—theft, fraud, and drug offences—as violent crimes and during this period more custodial sentences were handed out for non-violent drugs offences.

Also of note, two-thirds of imprisoned women are mothers of children under the age of 18. This means that many children are living without their primary carer for significant periods of time, potentially affecting their future human capital.

American attitudes towards imprisonment appear to be changing. Arguments about the high cost of mass incarceration have appealed to many on the political right—advocating for change as a way of saving money—while the social price being paid is stimulating the promotion of alternatives to custody on the political left.

Nadia Campaniello, in her IZA World of Labor article on women in crime, notes that prevention, punitive, and rehabilitation policies have failed to distinguish in the past between women and men, whilst the economic literature has under-investigated the issue of female participation in the crime market. She believes that it is “crucial to learn whether men and women behave differently in the crime market and, if so, to uncover the main drivers of these differences and to set policy incentives accordingly.” One example would be to “introduce a policy that helps to reduce wage disparity across skilled and unskilled female workers, such as incentivizing female education, to deter disadvantaged women from engaging in criminal activities.”

Read more on this story in the Guardian.

Related articles:
Women in crime, by Nadia Campaniello
Read more articles in our Demography, family, and gender subject area.