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Soaring Female Incarceration Rates Demand Gender-Responsive Policies

(Chicago) – Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population in the United States. Nationally, from 1980 to 2016, their number increased by more than 700 percent—doubling the rate of growth among men.

In that same time period, incarceration rates of women in Illinois also skyrocketed. At the end of 1980, 346 women were held in Illinois state prisons. By the end of 2016, that number had soared more than seven-fold to 2,613.

Seeking to reverse these trends, Deanne Benos and Alyssa Benedict, co-founders of the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI) in Illinois, launched a task force last year with the aim of reducing the number of women in the state’s prisons by 50 percent in seven years. 

Leading the task force is Pam Rodriguez, president of TASC, and Colette Payne, who was incarcerated five times, starting at age 14, and now works as a community organizer for Cabrini Green Legal Aid. 

The task force is focused on identifying and implementing gender-responsive programming across the justice system—community law enforcement, jail, pre-trial, courts, probation, and parole. 

The needs for such responses are both pressing and complex.

As the Women’s Justice Institute reports, women are more likely to enter prison with a history of physical and sexual abuse and be incarcerated for “crimes of survival,” such as drug and property crimes, or ones committed in response to abusive and exploitative relationships. Incarcerated women also have lower incomes on average than incarcerated men and are more likely to suffer from PTSD and experience housing instability. Other advocacy groups, such as The Sentencing Project, Vera Institute of Justice, and the Prison Policy Initiative, have reported similar findings, highlighting the prevalence of histories of physical and sexual violence, poverty, substance use, and mental health issues among women in jails and prisons. Furthermore, conditions in correctional facilities can re-traumatize women, compounding issues that may have contributed to criminal activity and justice system involvement in the first place.

The impact extends to children, families, and communities. Eighty percent of women in jails and 60 percent of women in prison are mothers of minor children, and, prior to incarceration, most were the primary caretakers of their children. “Children of incarcerated parents face profound and complex threats to their emotional, physical, educational, and financial well-being,” reports the National Institute of Justice.

“The need for this task force is clear,” said Rodriguez. “We can and must improve policies, practices, programs, and services to achieve more successful outcomes for women and their families.”

The all-female, 100-member task force brings together officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections; formerly incarcerated women; national experts; and teams from jails, prisons, courts, probation/parole, academia, social services, and Illinois counties most impacted by rising rates of female incarceration.

A task force white paper anticipated in August 2019 will outline actionable strategies for achieving three goals:

  1. Reduce number of women held in state prisons by at least 50 percent. 
  2. Reduce harm to justice-involved women, their children, families and communities entangled in current systems.
  3. Improve well-being and outcomes among women, children and their communities.

"We can do something real and capitalize on the fact that Illinois has bipartisan momentum. This is not a time to be complacent,” said Benos as the task force was launched. “We are at a real tipping point.” 

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