The Impact of Violence on the Incarceration Rate for American Women

This post is part of an ongoing series on the intersection of law and how it interacts with violence against women, illuminating how it is equally critical to make effective implementation of law, as well as the legislation itself, a priority. For background and the inspiration of this series, start here.

Although the American public has focused its attention lately on criminal justice reform, the prison population in the United States still continues to grow. In fact, statistics reveal that the number of incarcerated American women has increased by more than 700 percent from 1980 to 2014—nearly 1.5 times the rate of men.

Woman handcuffsIt should come as no surprise that mass incarceration takes a toll on our society, not only costing the United States roughly $80 billion a year on corrections expenditures, or hindering an individual’s ability to meaningfully contribute to society, but also impacting Americans outside the prison walls. Seventy-five percent of prisoners have a hard time finding employment once they are released. When a family member is incarcerated, nearly 65 percent of families cannot afford to pay for basic necessities, like food and housing.

At this point, one-third of the world’s women in prison are incarcerated in the United States. In order to understand that drastic increase in incarceration of America women, we need to understand who these women are. Research indicates that the majority are non-violent offenders with little education and job experience, and a history of physical and sexual abuse. Before a solution to this mounting problem of over-incarceration can be developed, the criminal justice system must consider how women react to a history of physical and sexual abuse, and how the United States may better treat these women and reduce their incarceration rates.

Research indicates that there is a connection between the incarceration rate of women and their past experience with violence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics published data in 1999 reporting that as many as 57 percent of women incarcerated in state prison had previously suffered from some kind of abuse. Likewise, statewide data shows that the majority of young women who are sent into the juvenile justice system—in some states, as many as 93 percent of girls—has experienced sexual or physical abuse in the past.

In an effort to understand why abused women may be incarcerated at higher rates, researchers have identified four general categories of motivation that typically lead abused women to criminal behavior: (1) coercion, (2) agency, (3) coping, and (4) revenue-raising. Coercion relates to the influence that abusers have on their victims. Victims have a desire to preserve and maintain relationships, even abusive ones, that will often lead them to become involved in drug use or prostitution if their abusers demand it, or to be coerced to participate in criminal activity or assume responsibility for their abusers’ crimes. Similarly, agency may play a role in the propensity to commit crimes for victims of abuse, as some women break the law alongside their abusers in order to feel a sense of “mutuality and shared power.” The types of survival strategies that women often use to cope with abuse—such as drug use for self-medication—also tend to involve or result in criminal behavior. For example, teenage women who have been abused are more likely to drop out of school, run away from home, engage in substance abuse, and experience dating violence. Finally, researchers have explained that abused women may steal or commit other crimes in an effort to obtain money to satisfy or demonstrate loyalty to an abusive partner, or to raise funds to pay for an eventual escape from the abusive environment. This motivation is consistent with a recent post by Global Right for Women linking the lack of economic opportunities for women with an increased vulnerability to domestic violence.

Given that violence against women is a worldwide problem and these four motivational categories affect women throughout the world, why are American women incarcerated in such greater numbers? The Sentencing Project suggests the answer may be the biggest factor affecting American women is the war on drugs. Because women are less likely than men to commit violent crimes, they are more impacted by changes in drug enforcement policies. As a result, data shows that women in the United States are more likely to go to jail for drug-related charges than American men are, and the United States is not alone: other countries with large women prison populations similarly incarcerate women in overwhelming numbers for drug-related charges.

In light of this research, providing holistic preventive treatment to women in abusive relationships would inevitably lower the number of incarcerated women generally and in the United States specifically. There is evidence that trauma-based intervention of young women early on in the juvenile system reduces the rates of recidivism, thus breaking the cycle of abuse and imprisonment. In addition, programs that provide comprehensive treatment as an alternative to jailing women, such as Women in Recovery, have had a high degree of success, reporting that almost 70 percent of the women in the program do not commit further crimes after treatment. Global Rights for Women is actively following these “lessons learned” in the United States and is dedicated to sharing that knowledge with its partners abroad. In order to prevent incarceration as an unintended consequence for abused women, Global Rights for Women focuses on best practices in both drafting and implementing laws to help identify abused women as victims, rather than co-perpetrators, and strives to help its partners understand the trauma of abuse and account for it appropriately when setting up responses to violence against women.


Global Rights for Women receives support to create our blog content from a talented team of volunteers. This contribution was written in collaboration with a volunteer.