Why Are Women’s Incarceration Rates Increasing?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

The US has the highest rate of incarceration of women in the world, with a rate of 127 for every 100,000 of the population – and the rate is only going upwards. But why are we so quick to incarcerate women where other countries might not? How have we got such a high rate when other countries have just a fraction of our numbers? 

Today we’ll be exploring why women’s incarceration rates are increasing, as well as if there is any way to slow it down and change the trend. 

How has the rate changed over the years? 

The US seems to be in competition with itself when it comes to the incarceration rates of women, as this number has been substantially increasing for decades now. Between the 1980s and 1990s, there was a considerable jump in the number of women incarcerated, with the total tripling in just 10 years. 

Since the 20th century, the rate of incarceration for women has been reliably increasing. The trend seems to be on a similar trajectory to the increase between the 80s and the 90s, so we can assume that we’ll be seeing another substantial increase as time goes on. 

The ICPR recently released a global dataset that further shows how these numbers have increased, with it showing a 53% jump in incarceration rates for women since 2000. This statistic is global, not just in the US. However, as the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we can assume that we are responsible for a large portion of this data. 

To put this new statistic into perspective, the global male incarceration rates have only increased by 20% since the start of the millennium. 

Why are the incarceration rates for women increasing so rapidly?

So, what is the root cause of this incredible inclu8i7uhjine in incarceration rates for women? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to this question. However, we can look at the data and determine why women commit crimes in the first place to predict why the rates might have skyrocketed. 

Crimes committed by women are not so much of a violent nature, unlike male offenders. Instead, female inmates are typically found guilty of drug related crimes. 

Let’s look at a few of the reasons why women commit crimes. 

Lack of assets

A common reason why women commit crimes is due to poverty and not being able to afford basic needs such as food and shelter. 

A study found that women inmates are often single mothers, and have committed a crime in order to look after their children. 

Of course, criminal activity is never the answer, but it begs the question of why these women are in such financial hardship that they feel as though they are pushed to the last resort. 

Perhaps if there was more support out there for single mothers and people living in poverty, then the crime rates would stop increasing by quite so much. 

The cost of living has increased substantially since the 1980s. The dollar has had an inflation rate of 2.94% every year since 1980, meaning that the total inflation rate between now and then has been 237.32%. 

With the cost of living rising so substantially, and salary and government subsidies failing to keep up with inflation, more people are finding themselves in financial trouble. 

This could be one of the reasons why women’s incarceration rates have increased so much all over the world, not just in the US. 

Mental health 

A common theme among typical female inmates is mental health struggles. These can be from a number of causes, such as poverty, childhood trauma, lack of human capital, and more. 

Mental health is a huge issue in the US, with more than 1 in 5 women experiencing mental health issues every year. Many mental health problems such as depression and bipolar disorder affect more women than men. 

Mental health struggles were still rife in the 1980s, but external factors, such as the increased price of living, might have an effect on the amount of mental health disorders being seen among the population. 

A rise in mental health cases could equate to a rise in mental health related crimes, increasing the rate of women being incarcerated in the United States. 

Access to drugs

Illegal drug use has been a problem for many generations, so we’re not suggesting that there were zero substance abuse related crimes in the 1980s. However, we do think that it is important to note the new drugs that are being introduced to the black market.

These new drugs pose a lot of risk to the public – more than the older, better known drugs such as cocaine and cannabis. For example, synthetic cannabinoids (otherwise known as Spice) is a relatively new illegal drug. For Spice, the long term effects are still relatively unknown.  

Not only are new drugs being created, but older drugs are becoming more dangerous. For example, cannabis is being sold with an increased THC content, and the same can be said for MDMA. 

These newer and advanced variations of well-known drugs could be a reason why the incarceration rates have increased. If these stronger drugs are easier to get ahold of, women might be more likely to abuse them and commit crimes that they might not have if they were not under the influence. 


The rate of incarceration for women in the US is exponentially higher than it is anywhere else in the world. There could be a few reasons for this, although there is no concrete evidence to support this yet. 

Poverty, drug abuse, and mental health could all play a part in increasing the amount of crimes committed by women every year. 

The cost of living is higher, leading more people into financial instability and increasing the likelihood of crimes being committed. This issue can also lead to mental health issues, which can then also lead to higher crime rates. 

Mental health disorders improve the chances of trying illegal drugs, which is also a common culprit for crimes committed by women. As you can see, there is a domino effect that increases the chances of women committing crimes at every hurdle. 

If we are hoping to reduce the number of women incarcerated every year, we should aim to improve these problems in the hopes that a better quality of living will reduce crime rates on its own.