The decline in the U.S. prison population is relatively small, but the trend that has special meaning for women with children – a demographic that has dealt with distinct challenges related to incarceration and now appears to be benefiting from less emphasis on harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses, reports the Wall Street Journal. “The decline in women’s incarceration appears to be related to fewer drug offenders in prison,” says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group. “As harsh sentencing policies have begun to be scaled back, and diversion programs expanded, fewer women are now being sentenced to lengthy prison terms for lower-level drug offenses.”
Beginning in the 1970s, the “war on drugs” led to a surge in the prison population, but as a percentage, women saw a greater increase. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in federal and state prison rose by 646 percent, from 15,118 to 112,797. Counting women in local jails brought the US total of female prisoners in 2010 to more than 205,000. The rise in male incarceration between 1980 and 2010 was 419 percent. Between 2009 and 2012, the female prison population – though far smaller than the male prison population – dropped by a larger percentage (4.1 percent) than the male prison population (2.7 percent). This trend has particular meaning for children. In 2008, 52 percent of women in state prison and 63 percent in federal prison had at least one child under the age of 18, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.