New report sheds light on women in jail, the fastest growing population behind bars

August 17, 2016

New York, NY—The number of women in jail—most of them mothers—is growing faster than any other correctional population, but has largely been overlooked, even as recognition of the role of jails as a driver of mass incarceration has grown, a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge reveals.

The number of women in jail in the U.S. has grown 14-fold since 1970 and continues to rise, even as the number of men in jail has begun to decline. Women are now held in jails in nearly every county—a stark contrast to 1970, when 73% of counties held not a single woman in jail. This growth has been driven largely by small counties, where the number of women in jail has grown 31-fold, and where nearly half of women in jail are held today.

Despite this profound shift, little research to date has examined the growth of jail incarceration of women. Amid increasing attention to the overuse of local jails and how to curb it, this report takes stock of what we do know about women in jail in order to begin to reframe the conversation to include them.

“Just as the damaging overuse of local jails has been missing from the national conversation about mass incarceration until quite recently, the exponential growth of women in jail has gone unnoticed for too long,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. “This report is an important step in exposing this problem—which profoundly and directly affects families as well as the women behind bars. We hope it catalyzes the action needed to reverse course.”

In addition to describing the precipitous growth of the number of women in jail, the report sheds light on their unique challenges and disadvantages:

  • Among women in local jails, 32% have a serious mental illness—a rate more than double that of jailed men and six times that of women in the general public.
  • Women in jail experience trauma at extraordinarily high rates both before and during their incarceration: 86% report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, and women make up the majority of victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization.
  • Women are more economically disadvantaged in general, and are less likely to be able to afford the bail, fines, and fees that often trap them in jail or lead them back to jail following their release. The majority of women in jail are people of color, and nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative net wealth.
  • Though women still make up a small fraction of the overall jail population, their incarceration has a far-reaching impact on families and communities. Nearly 8 in 10 women in jail are mothers, and unlike men, the majority are single parents.

“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,” said Julia Stasch, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “We hope this report raises awareness about how the overuse of incarceration affects women, and that it leads to more effective alternatives that build better futures for women and their families, and ultimately, help restore public trust in the justice system.”

The report also details how virtually all new responses to address growing jail populations—such as assessment tools, pretrial supervision, and probation programs—are based on research about men in jail. These programs and practices can have unintended negative consequences for women, including overestimating the public safety risk women pose, which has been shown to be less than that of men. However, several jurisdictions nationwide are leading efforts to develop gender-responsive policies to reduce the over-incarceration of women in jails.

This report is one of a series that Vera is releasing with the Safety and Justice Challenge—the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. The initiative is supporting a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions committed to safely reducing jail incarceration and making their justice systems fairer and more effective. Learn more at