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Men Are From Mars Cell Block...Women Are From Venus Cell Block

womencriminaljustice 0The ACLU is a fierce advocate for equal treatment and protection under the law for women. Equal pay...equal access to employment...equal time, respect and attention in school…you get the idea.

 That said, the ACLU recognizes that there are some special situations in which the government must acknowledge that its actions, policies and practices have a unique impact on women. In these situations, one size does NOT fit all. One such area is CORRECTIONS specifically, and the criminal justice system more broadly.

Nationwide the female inmate population is just about 1/14 the size of the male population (in 2010). Similarly in Utah, female inmates have their own trends, characteristics and profile, quite apart from their male counterparts. Women make up a small proportion of Utah's overall incarcerated population, but their numbers are growing much faster than those of male inmates. The unique characteristics of this group demands unique attention.

On June 12, analysts from Pew's Public Safety Performance Project presented data to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice about what is driving Utah’s FEMALE prison population. In May, the Pew team made a broader presentation about what is driving the OVERALL prison population in Utah - but this was a special presentation that broke out female offender data and examined their trends separately, in response to a request from advocates at past CCJJ meetings (good job, Utah Women's Summit representatives!)

Pew's full Powerpoint presentation on the female prison population can be downloaded below. It's pretty short, and worth the read. However, it's best understood via comparison to Pew's broader presentation on what's driving Utah's overall prison population, and THAT presentation is NOT so short. So we've taken the liberty of compiling some comparisons for you...

  •  The number of men in Utah prisons has risen 20% in the past ten years. The number of FEMALE state prisoners has risen 57% - nearly TRIPLE. Female inmates still make up less than 1/10 of Utah's total prison population, so don't expect "equality" in overall numbers anytime soon - but the trend is highly concerning.
  •  Since 2003, there has been a 3% rise in MALE newly-sentenced felony offenders. During the same time period, there has been an 11% rise in FEMALE offenders in this category. Again...nearly TRIPLE.
  • Nearly 43% of all female prisoners are serving time for probation violations. This is much higher than the rate for the inmate population overall (31%). 
  • Most of the women who commit these technical violations were originally convicted of non-violent offenses: specifically, drug and property crimes.
  • Utah's overall prison population seems to be driven by longer sentences, not new admissions to prison. Overall, Utah prisoners are serving 20% more time in 2013 than they would have served in 2003 for a new court commitment (NCC). But Utah's FEMALE prisoners are serving 60% more time for NCCs now than ten years ago.
  • To break that down a little more...the average prisoner (not differentiated by sex) is serving 26% more time for a property offense. The average FEMALE prisoner incarcerated for a property offense is serving 66% more time.

One way to think of all these discouraging statistics: everything that seems to be going wrong, generally, in the criminal justice system in Utah...is going WORSE for women. There are more technical revocations resulting in prison time. There are more convictions and time served for property and drug offenses. There is a bucking of the national trend of DECREASING prison populations: nationwide, the female inmate population is down slightly. In Utah, clearly, its going UP at an alarming rate.

Note: The Pew analysts mentioned that this is likely correlated with a rise in meth and prescription pill addiction among Utah women...which sounds to us like a serious public health problem, NOT simply a criminal justice issue. Here's hoping that increased access to treatment will help these members of our community - and, by extension, their families.

And speaking of familes...female inmates are much more likely than their male counterparts to be the primary custodial parents of young children. According to the Sentencing Project, nearly two-thirds of women in state prisons nationwide are mothers of minor children. When women are incarcerated for non-violent drug and property offenses, for which they might reasonably be given community-based supervision or, even better, TREATMENT, we create many more victims within Utah families and communities.

You'd be surprised at how familiar and relatable a lot of these women - like Ann, profiled here at Youturn.org - actually are. The issues and needs that lead to substance abuse - and the criminal behavior related to it - are complex. Incarceration simply is not the best or only way to address these issues and needs.

 Let's wrap up with a little good news. Over the past year, Utah's Dept. of Corrections (UDC) has proactively pursued a "gender-responsive" model for dealing with female inmates, parolees and probationers. Specifically, UDC has started using a female-specific risk-and-needs assessment tool (remember those "best-practices" in criminal justice?) developed by the University of Cincinnati (the WRNA). According to UDC, they've already seen a significant drop in the number of technical violations since initiating use of the WRNA. They expect this new orientation toward female offenders to result in positive overall outcomes in terms of our female prison population.

 If you have any questions about this blog post, or corrections to the content, please contact ACLU of Utah Public Policy Advocate Anna Brower at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can also request to receive a weekly (or so) update on criminal justice reform developments in Utah throughout 2014.

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