BJS update: Women’s state prison populations rose while men’s fell, again.

Released on the heels of our recent report on women's state prison populations, a new BJS report shows that in 2016, the "gender divide" in incarceration trends widened even more.

by Wendy Sawyer, January 10, 2018

Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual update on prison populations in the U.S. Of course, it’s just my luck that they released the 2016 data the day after my report on women’s state prison population trends over time. But the changes over the last year are largely consistent with my finding that women’s prison populations remain near record highs while men’s populations are falling.

In 2016, state prisons across the U.S. cut men’s populations by more than 12,000 – but maddeningly, incarcerated over 700 more women than they did in 2015, widening the “gender divide” we’ve seen in the past few years. In 14 states, women’s populations grew or were unchanged while men’s declined. In some of these, the differences are minimal, but in others, the disparities are cause for alarm. The changes in these states underscore how the growth of women’s incarceration can undermine efforts to decarcerate:

  • Tennessee managed to grow its overall prison population solely by incarcerating more women. The men’s population actually decreased, but that progress was thwarted by an even greater growth in the women’s population.
  • South Carolina saw a modest reduction in the men’s prison population, but locked up 10% more women – enough to cancel out most of the reduction in the men’s population.
  • Ohio reduced its prison population by 222 men – but counteracted most of that change by incarcerating 164 more women.
  • In Arizona, almost half of the prison beds emptied by reductions in the men’s population were backfilled by additions to the women’s population.

The new report offers more evidence that as states undertake the critical work of reducing prison populations, they need to pay attention to these gendered trends. The most effective reforms will reverse the growth of all incarcerated populations, without leaving women behind.

Wendy Sawyer is the Prison Policy Initiative Research Director. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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