Martinsburg Journal – Over the last 40 years female incarceration in West Virginia has exploded, growing by a staggering 2,731 percent from 1978 to 2019. Over the same period, the state’s population has declined by nearly seven percent. What could explain such exponential growth in female incarceration as our overall population has declined? Read the full op-ed.
We found that it wasn’t an issue of rising crime. Instead, the increase in incarceration is due to social drivers, like poverty and substance use, and policy drivers, like sentencing decisions. These drivers seem to be impacting women more than men, with female incarceration growing three times more than male incarceration over the last 20 years. West Virginia ranks in the top 10 of all states for its rate of female incarceration and in the top five for its rate of female juvenile confinement.
Overincarceration and overcrowding has taken on particular significance during the pandemic, when the public health implications of decarceration are abundantly clear. And the overincarceration of women impacts not only those inside, but their entire families as well. Hundreds of women behind bars in our state are mothers and many are the primary caregivers and breadwinners for their families. Based on national estimates, in West Virginia eight out of 10 women in jail and three out of five women in prison are mothers. The incarceration crisis feeds our state’s foster care crisis— more than 10 percent of incarcerated mothers throughout the U.S. have a child in foster care or state custody. These family disruptions have generational consequences, with children less financially secure and more likely to end up incarcerated themselves if their mother was in jail or prison.
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