Women of Color and the US Criminal Justice System

Women are the fastest-growing portion of the U.S. prison population. In particular, women of color are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.

Posted on 03/16/16
(Photo by Peter Burka, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by Peter Burka, Creative Commons License)

The policies implemented under the so-called tough-on-crime, war on drugs, and “Broken Windows” approaches to policing have led to an explosion in the U.S. prison population. One in three Americans carries the burden of a criminal record, and nearly half of American children have a parent with a criminal record. Americans with criminal records suffer lifelong consequences, such as barriers to housing, education, and employment, among others. Between 1980 and 2014, the population of women who were incarcerated grew 700 percent.


These policies have a disproportionate impact on women of color. Here are six things that all Americans should know about women of color and the criminal justice system:


  1. African American women are more likely than women of other races to go to prison during their lifetimes. According to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, 1 in every 18 African American women will go to prison during their lifetime if incarceration rates continue at the same rate. This is far greater than the rates for white women and Latinas—1 in 111 women and 1 in 45 women, respectively.
  2. African American women are significantly overrepresented in state and federal prison populations. According to a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the incarceration rate of African American women was more than double the incarceration rate of white women. More specifically, 109 out of every 100,000 African American women in the United States were sentenced to state or federal prison by the end of 2014, compared with 53 out of every 100,000 white women.
  3. The war on drugs has negatively affected women of color. Women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug offense. Furthermore, research has shown that although all women use and sell drugs at the same rate, women of color—particularly African American women and Latinas—have a higher likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system for a drug offense. Generally, women involved in the drug trade have scant knowledge or say over actual drug dealing operations, which gives them little leverage in negotiating shorter sentences.
  4. Incarcerated women are likely to be victims of abuse, have a history of substance abuse, and/or suffer from mental health issues. A 2007 study found that nearly all incarcerated women have experienced a “traumatic event”—with 71 percent reporting that they were “exposed to domestic violence.” According to a 2008 study, 73 percent of women in state prisons and 47 percent of women in federal prisons used drugs prior to going to prison. Additionally, approximately 73 percent of women in state prisons and 75 percent of women in local jails have signs of mental health disorders, compared with only 12 percent of women in the general U.S. population.
  5. Approximately 12,000 pregnant women, or approximately 6 percent of incarcerated women, are incarcerated each year. Many of these women are subjected to the dehumanizing and dangerous practice of shackling during childbirth. This practice is not only dangerous to the mother—limiting her mobility to manage the pain of childbirth—but it also puts the child at risk, reducing physicians’ ability to safely deliver the baby. Unfortunately, 28 states have no laws prohibiting the practice.
  6. African American and American Indian girls have higher rates of placement in juvenile residential detention facilities than those of other racial and/or ethnic groups. African American girls are also more likely than other girls to face school suspensions. African American and American Indian female juveniles were placed in residential detention facilities at rates—1.7 times and more than 4 times, respectively—higher than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Additionally, African American and American Indian female juveniles were placed in these facilities at rates of 113 per every 100,000 girls and 167 per every 100,000 girls, respectively, while non-Hispanic white female juveniles were held in these facilities at a rate of 35 per every 100,000 girls.


The legacy of the nation’s broken criminal justice system has affected all Americans, particularly women of color. Women are the fastest-growing portion of the U.S. prison population, and data show that women of color are disproportionately affected by the system. Criminal justice reform is essential to make sure that these women have the opportunity to succeed once they have paid their debts to society.


Jamal Hagler is the Research Assistant for the Progress 2050 team at the Center for American Progress.

This article first appeared at the Center for American Progress website. Click here to go to the original.

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