Mass Incarceration is Declining, But Not for Women

Election after election, voters are turning against mass incarceration and the war on drugs that sustains it.

In 2020, the people of Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana, joining 11 other states and the District of Columbia. In Oregon, voters opted to decriminalize possession of all drugs. And even during the deeply divisive Trump administration, bipartisan criminal justice reform managed to pass a Republican Senate and Democratic House to get signed into law.

Slowly but surely, the absurdly large incarcerated population in the U.S. is declining. One noteworthy exception, though, is women.

Since U.S. incarceration peaked in 2008, the number of people in our jails and prisons is down about 8 percent overall. The population of incarcerated women, however, has actually increased about 5 percent during that span. The bulk of this growth is concentrated in jails, where the number of women behind bars is up 15 percent.

Because women make up a relatively small percentage of the incarcerated population, trends in their data can go unnoticed. Most people don’t know the total number of incarcerated women is up 700 percent compared to 40 years ago.

Halting this dangerous ascent should be right at the top of the incoming Biden-Harris administration’s criminal justice agenda.

Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have checkered histories when it comes to criminal justice. Biden authored the 1994 crime bill, which was a boon to mass incarceration. And Harris’s self-proclaimed status as the original “progressive prosecutor” during her presidential campaign was forcefully debunked by those familiar with her record.

But have they turned over a new leaf?

Both have recently expressed support for reforming the justice system and are under immense pressure to deliver on that front. They’ll take office at a time when the country appears ready to move past the era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and especially the criminalization of marijuana.

Drug-related offenses aren’t the only thing driving up the number of incarcerated women, but they’re the primary charge for over a quarter of women in prison. In fact, drug-related arrests among women today are up 216 percentsince 1985 — far more than the 48 percent uptick for men.

Pretrial detention is another major factor. About 60 percent of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting a trial. Being unable to afford bail means they’re locked up solely because they’re poor or low income.

This is an urgent problem, particularly for poor families already hard hit by the pandemic and recession. About 62 percent of women in prison are mothers of minor children. For women in jail, that figure rises to 80 percent. Most of them are the primary caretakers of their children.

Biden and Harris must use their bully pulpit to guide policymakers away from the mistakes of the drug war era. Both of them played a role in mass incarceration, and both owe it to the American people to lead us out of it.

Our country has a chance to chart a new path. Let’s prioritize community-based alternatives to incarceration like rehabilitation programs and reentry services. And let’s stop punishing low-level drug offenses and locking up mothers who can’t make bail.

Dr. Robert P. Abele is the author of three books: A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act (2005); The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq (2009); and Democracy Gone: A Chronicle of the Last Chapters of the Great American Democratic Experiment (2009). His latest articles on political theory and war will be published in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Global Justice, by Springer Press. His new book is entitled The Self-Conscious, Thinking Subject: A Kantian Contribution to Reestablishing Reason in a Post-Truth Age, and will be released this year. Dr. Abele is an instructor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, located in the San Francisco Bay area.