WASHINGTON – The number of women in state and federal prisons is at an all-time high and growing fast, with the incarceration rate for females increasing at nearly twice that of men, the government reported Sunday.
There were 101,179 women in prisons last year, 3.6 percent more than in 2002, the Justice Department (search) said. That marks the first time the women's prison population has topped 100,000, and continues a trend of rapid growth.
Overall, men are still far more likely than women to be in jail or prison, and black men are more likely than any other group to be locked up.
At the close of 2003, U.S. prisons held 1,368,866 men, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (search) reported. The total was 2 percent more than in 2002.
Expressed in terms of the population at large, that means that in 2003, one in every 109 U.S. men was in prison. For women the figure was one in every 1,613.
Longer sentences, especially for drug crimes, and fewer prisoners granted parole or probation are main reasons for the expanding U.S. prison population, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project (search), which advocates alternatives to long prison terms for many kinds of crimes.
The increase began three decades ago, and continues. The new report compared 2003 figures with those from 1995.
The number of women in prison has grown 48 percent since 1995, when the figure was 68,468, the report said. The male prison population has grown 29 percent over that time, from 1,057,406.
Year by year, the number of women incarcerated grew an average of 5 percent, compared to an average annual increase of 3.3 percent for men.
"It coincides exactly with the inception of the war on drugs," in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, Mauer said. "It represents a sort of vicious cycle of women engaged in drug abuse and often connected with financial or psychological dependence with a boyfriend," or other man involved in drug crime, Mauer said.
The prison figures do not fully reflect the number of people behind bars. About 80,000 women were in local jails last year, along with more than 600,000 men.
The federal prison system held a large share of female prisoners, with a population of 11,635 at the close of 2003. One state — Texas — held even more, with a population of 13,487. California, the nation's largest prison system, held 10,656 women. North Dakota had fewer women in prison than any other state — 113.
Among other findings in the report:
— More than 44 percent of all sentenced male inmates were black, and many of them were young.
— Among the more than 1.4 million sentenced inmates at the end of 2003, an estimated 403,165 were black men between 20 and 39.
— At the end of 2003, 9.3 percent of black men 25 to 29 were in prison, compared with 2.6 percent of Hispanic men and 1.1 percent of white men in the same age group.
— In 11 states, there were increases in the prison population of at least 5 percent, led by North Dakota with an 11.4 percent rise.
— Also, 11 states had decreases. Connecticut had the biggest drop, at 4.2 percent.