The female population in jails has increased by nearly 1,300 percent since 1970.

“The number of women incarcerated in jails is growing at a faster rate than any other correctional population,” according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ), a nonprofit criminal justice research organization. “Nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers … they are, by and large, single parents, solely responsible for their young children.”

The last 44 years have seen an increase from fewer than 8,000 women in U.S. jails in 1970 to almost 110,000 in 2014.

This has taken place primarily in counties with a total population of fewer than 250,000 – moving from an estimated 1,700 (1970) to 51,600 (2014) women incarcerated in these small counties.

The impact of incarceration on families was emphasized in the report.

“Even a short stay in jail may do more than temporarily break up their families. Without the financial means to support their families for the length of their detention and upon their release, these women are very likely to be separated from their children, especially those who are in foster care, for longer than necessary,” the report stated.

This was a key focus of several interviewees in “Through the Door,” an documentary about faith and criminal justice.

“For every offender, there are five family members in crisis … When you start working with offenders, you multiply that number by five and that tells you the family impact of what you are doing,” explained David Valentine, pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas.

Factors in female jail incarceration include poverty, unemployment, health issues and mental health struggles, the VIJ report noted, with the two leading factors being trauma and substance abuse.

“Eighty-two percent had experienced drug or alcohol abuse or dependence in their lifetime. … 86 percent report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, 77 percent report partner violence, and 60 percent report caregiver violence.”

Linda Leathers, CEO of the Nashville-based The Next Door, spoke in “Through the Door” about factors behind female incarceration.

She emphasized that “women are victims so many times of trauma in their background as children and it is never treated.”

A brief explanation of the difference between jails and prisons is available here.

The full report is available here, and a summary is available here.

Editor’s note: Learn more about “Through the Door” here. Read additional articles related to criminal justice here. Download a free PDF resource sheet here.

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