Black women have become accustomed to hearing negative statistics about their finances, health and marriageability, but there is one statistic that has improved dramatically. According to recent reports, Black women are going to jail much less, while white women’s incarceration rates have skyrocketed.
The U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for almost a decade, yet the number of women in prison at the end of 2015 (about 105,000) is virtually identical to what it was when the de-incarceration trend began. The size of the female inmate population is being maintained by surging imprisonment among women of a particular race: whites.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics allow a 30-year perspective on the imprisonment rates of black and white women. In 1985, the rate for white women was extremely low (10 per 100,000), whereas for black women it was much higher (68 per 100,000). In the ensuing 15 years both groups experienced sharply increased imprisonment rates, but the burden was particularly acute for black women, who at a rate of just over 205 per 100,000 were imprisoned in 2000 at an unprecedented rate.
Black women remain imprisoned at a higher rate than white women, but the gap has shrunk from about 7 to 1 in 1985 to about 2 to 1 in 2015. Because whites are a much larger population, the increase in white female imprisonment has easily refilled the prison cells that black women have been vacating. At the end of 2015, white women (52,700) outnumbered black women (21,700) in prison by about 2.5 to 1.
This stunning change in the racial makeup of the female inmate population mirrors and may well be at least partially caused by changes on other indicators of economic and physical well-being. Over recent decades, life expectancy among women without a college education has increased for blacks but decreased for whites.
Problems with alcohol — the drug most closely linked to arrests, violence and incarceration — are up among white women but down among black women. White woman have also been disproportionately affected by the methamphetamine and prescription opioid epidemics, both of which raise the risk of contact with the criminal justice system.