Increasing Incarceration Rates

Incarceration rates for women have drastically increased across the U.S. – the number of incarcerated women has ballooned by 700 percent from 1980 to 2014, an increase much more pronounced than that for incarcerated men. The current rate of incarceration in the US is more than eight times higher than it was throughout most of the twentieth century. These incarceration rates have continued to steadily rise since the 1980s, even during periods when crime rates have been down. Racial disparities are clear among incarcerated women in the U.S.. In 2016, the imprisonment rate for African American women was twice that of white women, and the imprisonment rate for Hispanic women was 1.4 times that of white women. Over-policing, mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, longer sentences for property and drug crimes, and numerous barriers to successful reentry from prison are just some of the drivers behind the rapid growth in the number of incarcerated women.  

Oregon’s own incarceration rates for women are no exception to these national trends. The number of women incarcerated in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), Oregon’s only state prison for women, has tripled over the past 20 years, despite arrest rates for women having decreased by 36-40% during that same time. More specifically, the Oregon female prison population quadrupled from 324 women in 1994 to approximately 1,300 in 2017.  

This massive increase in the number of incarcerated women is partially due to more aggressive charging practices and overly punitive criminal laws that disproportionately affect women, such as the repeat property offender statute as amended by Ballot Measure 57. See our report Unlocking Measure 57 (February 2018)

In 2016, the Oregon Department of Corrections asked for millions of dollars of funding to open a unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary to accommodate the overflow of women at CCCF – essentially creating a second women’s prison. See our report Alternatives to Women’s Prison Expansion (October 2016). The Oregon state legislature rejected that funding request and passed HB 3078 in 2017. To avoid opening a second women's prison, the bill made small changes which reduced the anticipated need for an increased number of beds at CCCF. 

The solutions in HB 3078 came out of discussions almost exclusively about prison bed numbers and projections. Therefore, they offer only short-term solutions. We must start having deeper value- and evidence-based discussions about our current criminal justice system in order to bring about meaningful reforms.

Research tells us that increased incarceration rates neither lead to a decrease in crime rates nor address the larger social ills that often drive crime. Our reliance on this ineffective approach of locking up individuals in mass is not only a great expense to taxpayers - the cost of incarcerating one person in Oregon averages $34,511 per year, while average per-student spending in Oregon’s schools is $8,834 a year – it also comes at a great cost to our communities. Removing mass numbers of people from society, separating families, denying incarcerated people many basic human rights, and maintaining barriers to people’s successful return to their communities all act to the detriment of public welfare and safety. The growing number of incarcerated women in Oregon should be alarming to all of us, and it is up to us to explore what we can do as community members, constituents, and voters to end mass incarceration.

Avalon Edwards, OJRC's Women's Justice Project 2018 Summer Intern