More suburban white women are being packed off to Ohio prisons for crimes that once drew leniency, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The number has jumped 90 percent, from 899 in 1998 to 1,710 last year, according to state records. Over that period, the number of black women sent to prison has held generally steady at 1,100 to 1,200 per year. As prison officials scramble for more cells, the trend also leaves them puzzled about why more white women are behind bars. A national consultant hired by the state is expected to release a study within months.
Legal experts say a major factor is a 1996 law that reduced a judge’s discretion in sentencing and provided for uniformity in prison terms. Judges say the reforms have ensured that they treat white offenders the same as blacks. “There is a certain leveling effect, in gender and class,” said one judge. Critics had sought the changes for years, charging that sentencing laws singled out black offenders. A study by Human Rights Watch found that black women were more than eight times as likely as white women to be in prison in 1997. In Ohio, that’s changing. Since 1998, the number of blacks sent to prison has increased by 24 percent. The number of whites has increased by 47 percent.