United States: white women are going to prison at a higher rate than ever before

Mass incarceration of women was one of the important issues highlighted by the Women’s March on Washington. The U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for almost a decade, yet the number of women in prison at the end of 2015 (about 105,000) is virtually identical to what it was when the de-incarceration trend began. The size of the female inmate population is being maintained by surging imprisonment among women of a particular race: whites.

Bureau of Justice Statistics data allow a 30-year perspective on the imprisonment rates of black and white women. In 1985, the rate for white women was extremely low (10 per 100,000), whereas for black women it was much higher (68 per 100,000). In the ensuing 15 years both groups experienced sharply increased imprisonment rates, but the burden was particularly acute for black women, who at a rate of just over 205 per 100,000 were imprisoned in 2000 at an unprecedented rate.

But the black female imprisonment rate then began falling and has kept doing so to this day, whereas the white female rate continued the rise it began 30 years ago. Activists who think the prison population can be cut by 50 percent are sometimes dismissed as unrealistic, yet this is precisely what black women experienced over the past 15 years. In contrast, the current rate of white female imprisonment (52 per 100,000) is almost certainly a high.

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