Overview: Women and Girls and Criminal Justice

Last Updated Mar 1, 2024

This guide is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system and outlines opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes. See the entire series. By Kelly Macías, Ph.D.

Did you know?

How Does the Criminal Justice System Impact Women and Girls?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.1 million people in prison. Shocking when you consider that the U.S. is home to less than 5% of the world’s population! Though the number of people in jail is on the decline overall, the number of women in jails and prisons is on the rise.

Incarceration Rates (Women)

Incarceration Rates (Women)

Incarceration - Women in the US

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “women entering prisons and jails are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and other forms of victimization often linked to their offending behavior.” Many of these women are incarcerated for defending themselves against abusive partners. This cycle of violence only continues when they enter the correctional system. Women make up 27% of all inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization and 67% of all staff-on-inmate sexual victimization.

More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. Their children are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and serious psychological effects due to separation from their mothers and are more likely to be placed in foster care.

Girls and the Criminal Justice System

Criminal Justice Girls Stats

Girls are disproportionately jailed for low-level offenses, such as truancy and curfew violations. More than half of the youth who are incarcerated for running away are girls, and one-third of incarcerated girls are held for probation violations of status offenses.

Why Donors Should Care About Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system does not consider the unique needs of women and girls and the ways they are impacted by poverty and violence during their lifetimes.

"The push to incarcerate more women ignores the social and psychological forces that underlie female offending, including higher-than-average rates of lifetime exposure to cumulative trauma, as well as physical and sexual victimization; untreated mental illness; the use of substances to manage distress; and behavioral choices that arise in conjunction with gross economic disparities." - The American Psychological Association

Justice and gender equality for women and girls includes addressing these factors and providing resources for mental health, economic opportunity, and violence prevention so that women and girls experience less hardship and have their basic needs met.

The increased number of women and girls in the system reflects increasingly harsh sentencing laws, including stiffer penalties for drug offenses, expanded law enforcement efforts, and a system that allows for the incarceration of people who have yet to be convicted of a crime while they await trial.

Formerly incarcerated women and girls also face increased difficulty upon their release. Having a criminal record can impact employment, education, and housing opportunities. Donors can play a role in addressing the multiple factors that lead to incarceration by supporting organizations that fund grassroots efforts to improve the lives of incarcerated people and work toward transforming our criminal justice system.

Who Is Affected?

LGBTQ Youth and the Criminal Justice System

LGBTQ Youth and the Criminal Justice System

Gay, lesbian and bisexual people are 2.25 times more likely to be arrested than straight people. Lesbian and bisexual women are 4 times more likely to be arrested than straight women.

Incarceration and Transgender People

The National Institute of Corrections reports that transgender people are 13 times more likely to experience sexual assault in custody, comprising a staggering 59% of the sexual assault cases in prison.

Incarceration Rates and Transgender People

Four percent of the people in state prisons and 3% of those in federal prison are pregnant during the time of sentencing. Giving birth in prison can increase the risk of miscarriage, preterm births, and the need for cesarean deliveries. Access to quality reproductive care in prison varies widely by state and there are no mandatory standards at the federal level for prenatal or pregnancy care in prisons.

Incarcerated women and transgender people often experience poverty, well before they ever see the inside of a jail or prison. The annual median income for incarcerated women, prior to their incarceration is $13,890. For women of color, it is even less, with Black women earning an average income of $12,735 and Latinas earning an average of $11,820.

Thirty-one percent of girls in the juvenile justice system are victims of sexual violence, including victims of sex trafficking. Victims and survivors of child sex trafficking are often charged with prostitution and prostitution-related offenses, making up 76% of all juvenile arrests for prostitution. Fifty-seven percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests involve Black children, higher than any other racial group.

Access to sanitary pads and tampons is a major concern for incarcerated people with periods. Quality menstrual hygiene products are often available in prison only at a cost, which can be out of reach for many — especially when prison jobs pay as low as 30 cents an hour. Currently, 38 states have no law requiring them to provide menstrual products to incarcerated people.

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Laws, Fines and Bail Systems

Most incarcerated people in the United States are held in state prisons, but this is not the case for women. Nearly half of all incarcerated women are held in local jails, with nearly 60% of those not sentenced or convicted of crimes. Instead, they are unable to afford to pay for their freedom prior to trial. Women are generally less able to afford bail than men, in part because they have lower incomes. Not being able to post bail means that women in jail are often separated from their families. This is a problem because 80% of women in jails are mothers and most of them are the primary caretakers of their children.

Mothers In Jail

They are more likely than men to lose custody and parental rights upon being incarcerated. Without their mothers, these children are cut off from vital sources of support and caregiving which can have a detrimental impact on the rest of their lives.

Twenty-five percent of women in state prisons and 56% of women in federal prisons are serving time for non-violent drug crimes. Thirty-two percent are held for property crimes like burglary and larceny which are often connected to drug dependence and abuse.

Women in State and Federal Prisons

America’s War on Drugs has specifically had a devastating impact on women who are often jailed due to the increased prosecution of low-level drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentences that result in more offenders serving time for minor roles in drug crimes. Between 1988 and 1999, the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses grew by 888%. The number of Black women incarcerated for drug offenses grew 828% between 1986 and 1991, compared to 241% for white women.

One of the ways that the criminal justice system penalizes women is by imprisoning and convicting them based on their relationships with drug dealers, despite many having histories of drug addiction, mental health issues, and sexual violence. A 2020 report showed that, in 2009, approximately 70% of women serving time in prisons and jails struggled with drug abuse and dependence.

Mass Incarceration

The growth of for-profit prisons has made incarceration a profitable business for certain companies. The federal government is the largest user of private prisons in the United States, paying hundreds of millions of dollars each year to contractors whose prisons house nearly 9% of all the people in federal and state prisons. From 2000 to 2016, the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total population. During that same time, the number of people in private immigration facilities went up by 442%. The two largest private prison corporations in the country manage half of all the private prison contracts and brought in a combined revenue of $3.5 billion in 2015.

In 2016, the Department of Justice issued a report which found that private prisons are more violent than government run prisons. These prisons are dangerous for guards and inmates alike. Private prison guards receive less training than state prison guards and make less money, resulting in problems attracting and retaining qualified staff.  In recent years, horrific stories of inmate abuse in private prisons have made headlines. Immigrant women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia were the subject of a 2020 whistleblower complaint detailing invasive and medically unnecessary gynecological procedures, often without their consent.

Women inmates are subjected to a lack of reproductive health care in both state and private prisons and have been victims of forced sterilization while in custody.

Female Sterilization in Prison

The Center for Investigative Reporting found that between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 women in two California prisons, the majority of whom were Black and Latina, received tubal ligations shortly after giving birth. Many of those women said that they were pressured into the procedure by prison doctors or didn’t know what they were consenting to at all.

Treatment of Juveniles

Unfair and harsh treatment of young people in schools often leads to involvement in the criminal justice system, otherwise known as the school-to-prison pipeline. School discipline policies disproportionately impact girls and LGBTQ youth, particularly girls of color and LGBTQ youth of color, resulting in suspension, expulsion, juvenile arrest, and detention. These interactions with the criminal justice system result in a dangerous cycle that can persist as children become adults.

According to studies conducted by Georgetown University, Black girls are viewed as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls and routinely experience forms of bias that result in being treated in developmentally inappropriate ways by the adults around them, including teachers. They are often thought of as angry, aggressive, and hypersexual; negative stereotypes which are reflected in school discipline practices.

School Suspensions and Race

As they get older, Black girls are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white counterparts. Black girls can also be punished for wearing their hair naturally, with some schools enacting rules that ban natural or protective styles to meet arbitrary dress codes or grooming policies. The impact of these punishments can be seen in poor grades, behavioral issues and anti-social behavior, higher dropout rates, and rearrests as an adult.

LGBTQ youth are also disproportionately represented in the school-to-prison pipeline. They face a range of factors that contribute to their participation in the juvenile justice system. LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth, often due to family conflict related to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Homelessness poses a significant risk to their mental and physical health and well-being, and they may turn to illegal activities in order to survive. This increases the risk of being stopped by police, expelled from school, detained, and arrested. Nearly 40% of girls in juvenile justice facilities identify as LGBTQ and 85% to 90% of LGBTQ and gender non-conforming youth in juvenile justice facilities are youth of color. Schools are often unsafe places for LGBTQ youth. They face bullying and harassment from their peers and are often punished for defending themselves against harm or for violating sexuality and gender norms like gendered dress code policies. Nearly 47% of Black LGBTQ students, 44.1% of Latinx LGBTQ students, and 47.3% of multi-racial LGBTQ students report having been disciplined in school, compared to 36.3% of white LGBTQ students.

Get Involved

  • The National Bail Out Collective coordinates the Mama’s Day Bail Outs, where they bail out Black mamas and caregivers so they can spend Mother’s Day with their families while also providing fellowship and employment opportunities to support the growth and leadership of people who have experienced incarceration.
  • Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity, and opportunity for youth in the child welfare and justice systems.
  • The Trans Justice Funding Project is a community-led initiative that supports grassroots trans justice groups run by and for trans people in the United States, including U.S. territories.
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