Race, Women and Prison


The racial disparity between black incarcerated women and white incarcerated women dropped by nearly half between 2000 and 2009, according to a study released Wednesday.

Rates of incarceration for black women declined about 31 percent during that period, from 205 women per 100,000 to 142 per 100,000.

At the same time, incarceration rates for white women increased by about 47 percent, from 34 women per 100,000 to 50 per 100,000.

The study of prisons in a dozen states—released yesterday by The Sentencing Project, a non-profit advocacy group—highlights a dramatic shift for a system long known for its stark racial imbalance.

The study also notes that incarceration rates declined for black men, while rising for white men, but the shifts were less dramatic.

The study notes that statistics for incarcerated Hispanic men (declined 2.2 percent) and Hispanic women (increased 23.3 percent) are limited because “Hispanic arrestees are categorized by race, with the vast majority classified as white.”

In addition, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Centers were not included in the study.

Marc Mauer, the study's author, says that the shifts are likely tied to changing drug laws.

“Just as the 'War on Drugs' has had a very disproportionate affect for people of color… any policy changes that would apply to drug offenders are likely to benefit those communities,” Mauer said yesterday during a conference call for members of the press,

Among other possible causes for shifting racial compositions are changes to local law enforcement priorities, according to the report.

While many Midwestern and Southern states have cracked down on methamphetamine—a drug primarily associated with white users—other states have begun to walk back strict drug sentencing laws that were put in place during the 1980s crack epidemic.

For Glenn Martin, vice-president of the Fortune Society, a non-profit that advocates for alternatives to prison, the results of the study are a mixed bag.

“I'm not sure it's the kind of outcome I feel comfortable with,” Martin said during a phone interview yesterday, adding that the racial shift doesn't necessary signal a narrowing of socioeconomic gaps.

“I don't want to just exchange women of color for poor white women.”

The study highlights New York, where the decline of 1,002 women incarcerated for drugs between 2000 and 2009 represents “virtually the entire decline of women in prison during that period.”

In the last decade New York State has softened many of its hard Rockefeller drug laws and police in the City of New York have shifted focus from felony arrests to so-called “quality of life” crimes.

Another recent study controversially linked New York's shrinking prisons with changes in New York Police Department procedures.

Mauer noted that other factors also likely contributed to New York's decline, including “a decade or more of program development and policy change in sentencing.”

Despite incarceration rate declines in New York and other states, the United States continues to have changing the highest incarceration rate in the world. But Mauer thinks the study shows a trend away from mass incarceration.

“The rates are far too high for any society, but nonetheless the numbers are going in the right direction,” Mauer added.

Graham Kates is deputy editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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