Despite a declining total of women's arrests in the U.S., there was an increase in the female jail population between 2020 and 2021. Of about 170,000 women behind bars in that year, half are in prison and the other half in local jails. Another 1.2 million women are on probation or parole.
Experts from the National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women took part in a webinar sponsored by the Council of State Governments to discuss the consequences of ignoring gender for women with criminal justice involvement.
They discussed the use of trauma-informed principles as a framework for incorporating gender-responsive programming aimed at reducing harm among inmates and increasing the well-being of women and those who identify as nonbinary.
“We have seen an increase in not just prison populations, and the number of women on probation and parole but we especially see this increase in local jails,” said Kristie Puckett, Gender Justice Policy Advisor at the Center for Effective Public Policy and National Resource Center on Justice-Involved Women.
Puckett urged policymakers to be more conscious of transgender and non-binary people.
Non-binary and transgender individuals experience higher symptoms of psychological stress and are more likely to have experienced victimization, childhood abuse, and neglect.
“Non-binary and transgender people experience restrictive housing and solitary confinement more than the general population and are almost four times more likely to be the victims of sexual violence,” Puckett said.
As a population, they are overrepresented and often under-protected with inadequate resources, which exacerbates any pre-existing mental health, substance use, ideations of suicide, and early mortality rates.
Although women and non-binary people are in the minority in the criminal justice system, they are the fastest-growing criminal justice population.
Erica King, Senior Manager at the Center for Effective Public Policy, said that “most of these women and folks are posing very little risk to public safety compared to their male counterparts.”
Many of their crimes are relationship-oriented and economically motivated, she said. They are less likely to commit violent crimes.
Many women experience severe poverty and housing instability, which is a leading motivator in their crimes.
Other factors be early childhood experiences such as sexual abuse, violence, and neglect, which women then learn and incorporate into their behaviors.
“If we're not addressing housing, mental health, substance abuse, relationships, and education, we are not meeting the needs of our women,” King said.
Puckett urged improving the lives of imprisoned women and non-binary individuals by changing their conditions while in institutions.
King said women are less likely to be released on bail and to have visitors while incarcerated. They are more likely to be penalized for rule violations and to be disciplined.
Alternatives such as treatment facilities offered by the court often reflect the same structure as jails and prisons, making it hard for women and non-binary people to accept resources.
“If you are going to run your treatment facility like a prison that does not promote my bodily autonomy ... my dignity and humanity, are you any better than a prison?” Puckett said.
Court-ordered fines and fees also can be damaging. “A lot of the issues that drive people to incarceration are based in poverty, and so we are progressively taxing already poor, impoverished people and placing more conditions on them as they try to navigate the very difficult intricate criminal legal system,” said Puckett.