hands on prison bars

Virginia’s prison population grew by just 11 men from 2009 to 2015, but the number of women in Virginia’s prisons grew by 333 during the same period to more than 3,200.

“While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men,” while women’s incarceration rates remain near record highs, according to a report released Tuesday by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Few people know what’s happening in their own states,” said Wendy Sawyer, author of The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth.

She said the development is the result of policy decisions and that states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform if women are left behind. With 62 percent of imprisoned women separated from minor children, there are far-reaching effects, says the study.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2015, Virginia had 35,167 male prison inmates and 3,236 female inmates.

Figures from the Virginia Department of Corrections show that as of June 30, 2015, the most serious offenses — by frequency — for female inmates were: larceny/fraud, 38 percent; drug sales, 14 percent; robbery, 8 percent; and drug possession, 6 percent. Their average age is almost 38, and 62 percent are white and 37 percent black.

The number of women in Virginia prisons for larceny/fraud and robbery charges who also had drug convictions was not available.

The Justice Policy Initiative study reports that nationally, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834 percent over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

Reasons for outsize growth in female inmates include the war on drugs, and incarceration for violent offenses accounts for about one-third of the total growth of women’s state prison populations since 1978, and over half of the growth since 2000.

The change in women’s incarceration rates has been smaller in some states, such as Maine, and larger in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. The variation underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions, concludes the report.

“Perhaps the most troubling finding about women’s incarceration is how little progress states have made in curbing its growth — especially in light of the progress made to reduce men’s prison populations,” says the report.

Prison populations peaked nationally in 2009, but while the number of men incarcerated in state prisons fell more than 5 percent between 2009 and 2015, the number of women fell off just .29 percent.

In eight states, from 2009 to 2015 the male prison population declined but the overall state prison population climbed because more women were imprisoned, found the report.

In 19 states, women’s state prison populations continued to outpace men’s prison population growth after 2009. In Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada and New Hampshire, almost half of total prison growth from 2009 to 2015 was in women’s prisons. In Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee, more women were added to state prison populations than men.

The Prison Policy Initiative website says it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces research aimed at exposing the broader harm of “mass criminalization” and then sparking “advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.”

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