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  • Women walk along a corridor at the Los Angeles County women

    Women walk along a corridor at the Los Angeles County women's jail. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 August 2016

A new report says the number of women in U.S. prisons have increased 14 fold since the 1970s while most of them are women of color.

The number of women in United States prisons has increased 14-fold over the past four decades, with more than 60 percent of them being women of color and almost 45 percent being Black, a new report by Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative said Wednesday as it highlighted the fact that most of the women are in jail on low-level crime charges.

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According to the most recent data available on incarceration in the U.S., which is two years old, women now make up nearly 110,000 of the 745,000 people in the country's county or municipality-run jails.

While the increase in numbers is “alarming,” the report points to significant gaps in research and a failure to account for why more women are being locked up.

"With little data and scant examination of just who the women in jail are and how they got there, it is not surprising that recent innovations to craft smarter, more targeted use of jails do not account for the realities of women's lives," Fred Patrick, a director at the Vera Institute of Justice, said in the report.

The report also found that most of the women in the country's 3,000 prisons were women of color, with 44 percent Black and 15 percent Latinos. The report added that 80 percent of the women are mothers and most of them bear the sole responsibility of caring for their children.

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At least 82 percent of the women have been incarcerated for low-level nonviolent offenses, including property, drug and public order offences. Most of these women are extremely poor and low-income, the report added.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of imprisoned women reported symptoms of mental illness in the year prior to their arrest, and 86 percent were victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives.

The report’s most alarming conclusion was that local authorities have turned jails into "stopgap providers" of social and community services for women who have no access to such resources outside the criminal justice system.

But the numbers do not even begin to represent the actual numbers of men and women jailed every year. The numbers released by the government are based on a yearly count but fail to include those jailed and released before the annual count takes place.

This means the figures fail to account for some 11 million jail admissions that occur throughout the course of each year.

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