When Dolfinette Martin was convicted of shoplifting more than $700 worth of clothes in Louisiana in 2005, she had five children, no money and an addiction to cocaine.
Seven years later, in 2012, Ms. Martin became one of a growing number of impoverished women released from prisons and jails whose plight has been largely overlooked during continuing efforts to reverse mass incarceration, according to criminal justice experts.
“That cycle of poverty — not a lot of resources, not a lot of jobs, the lack of education, you kind of give up,” said Ms. Martin, 46, who now works as an administrative assistant.
On Wednesday, the Vera Institute of Justice and a program called the Safety and Justice Challenge released a report that found that the number of women in local jails in the United States was almost 14 times what it was in the 1970s, a far higher growth rate than for men, although there remain far fewer women than men in jails and prisons.
The study found that the number of women held in the nation’s 3,200 municipal and county jails for misdemeanor crimes or who are awaiting trial or sentencing had increased significantly — to about 110,000 in 2014 from fewer than 8,000 in 1970. (Over all, the nation’s jail population increased to 745,000 in 2014 from 157,000 in 1970.)
Much of the increase in the number of jailed women occurred in counties with fewer than 250,000 people, according to the study, places where just 1,700 women had been incarcerated in 1970. By 2014, however, that number had surged to 51,600, the report said. And even as crime rates declined nationally, the trend toward jailing women in rural counties continued: Incarceration rates for women in sparsely populated counties rose to 140 per 100,000 in 2014 from 79 per 100,000 in 2000, the study found. During the same period, incarceration rates for women in the nation’s largest counties decreased to 71 per 100,000 from 76 per 100,000. “Once a rarity, women are now held in jails in nearly every county — a stark contrast to 1970, when almost three-quarters of counties held not a single woman in jail,” the report said.
The counties with the highest rates of jailed women are nearly all rural and include Nevada County, Calif.; Floyd County, Ga.; and St. Charles Parish, La. Each has a population of fewer than 100,000 people but a rate of incarceration for women of more than 280 per 100,000, according to the Vera Institute.
Like Ms. Martin, 46, who was arrested on shoplifting charges 10 times and was held in jails and prisons throughout Louisiana from 1994 to her final arrest in 2005, the study found that a vast majority of the women are poor, African-American or Latino, and have drug or alcohol problems. About 80 percent have children. Most have been charged with low-level offenses, including drug or property crimes like shoplifting, but a growing number are in jail for violating parole or probation, for failed drug tests or for missing court-ordered appointments. Others are unable to make bail or pay court-mandated fees and fines, the report said. The trend echoes what has occurred in policing over the past two decades, as the police and prosecutors have focused on offenses that might have once been overlooked, even as rates for more serious crimes have declined, according to the Justice Department. The result, critics say, are overcrowded prisons and jails, many of them filled with nonviolent offenders. “As the focus on these smaller crimes has increased, women have been swept up into the system to an even greater extent than men,” said Elizabeth Swavola, one of the authors of the Vera report.
The study found that women accounted for 26 percent of total arrests in 2014, compared with 11 percent in 1960. And the most common offenses that led to arrests involved drugs. Between 1980 and 2009, the arrest rate for drug possession or use doubled for men but tripled for women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The troubles caused by the arrest of a woman responsible for supporting a family can sometimes never be undone, said Laurie R. Garduque, the director of justice reform for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which funds the Safety and Justice Challenge, whose mission is to create fairer, more effective local justice systems.
“It has a cascading effect,” she said.
During an interview, Ms. Martin said that her children — ages 10 to 16 when she was last arrested — had all once excelled in school, but that they had lost their ability to focus during her absences after the shoplifting arrests. None of her five children, who were taken care of by one of Ms. Martin’s nieces, graduated from high school, and her eldest two were incarcerated for various periods, she said.
“I missed a lot of time,” said Ms. Martin, who recently received her associate degree in business office technology. “You live with a lot of regret, a lot of guilt — tremendous guilt — when you have kids in the street trying to survive.”