Updated on March 1, 2022: This piece was originally published on March 1, 2020, and has been updated to reflect the latest statistics.
Women’s History Month is an occasion to recognize advancements in gender equality and the achievements of women around the world in everything from media to science to criminal justice reform. But it’s also an occasion to acknowledge the work that needs to be done to truly establish gender equality in all aspects of life.
When it comes to incarceration and wrongful conviction, women face unique challenges both as directly impacted individuals and as the people who shoulder much of the financial and caretaking burden when loved ones are incarcerated.
Yet conversations about mass incarceration have often overlooked women, even though they are the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Here are eight important facts about women and incarceration in the U.S. that you should know.
1. The population of women in state prisons has grown at more than twice the rate of the population of men in state prisons.
Women account for approximately 10% of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S., but despite making up a relatively small percentage of the overall incarcerated population, the number of women in state prisons is growing at a much faster rate than men. Between 1978 and 2015, the female state prison population grew by 834%.
2. Women are disproportionately incarcerated in jails where more than half of them have not yet been convicted of a crime and are still presumed innocent.
About 231,000 women were detained in jails and prisons across the U.S. in 2019, with approximately 101,000 being held in local jails. Among the women in these local jails, 60% had not yet been found guilty of a crime and were awaiting trial. One contributing factor to the high rate of women in jails pre-trial is that women are less likely to be able to afford to make bail or to pay other fees and fines that may prevent them from returning home to await their trials, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
3. Most incarcerated women are mothers.
More than 60% of women in prison have children under the age of 18 and nearly 80% of women in jail are mothers, the Prison Policy Initiative reports. Incarcerated women tend to be single parents or primary caretakers more often than incarcerated men, according to the Vera Institute. This means that their incarceration is likely to have a major impact on their children and family members. Many children of incarcerated mothers are placed in foster care.
Women are more likely to be incarcerated far away from their children because there are fewer women’s prisons than men’s making it difficult and costly for their children and family members to see them in person. After their incarceration, it can be extremely challenging for mothers to reunite with children placed in foster care.
4. Two hundred and fifty-eight women have been exonerated since 1989.
Of the 2,991 people who have been exonerated in the last three decades, about 9% were women, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.
5. Most female exonerees were convicted of crimes that never occurred.
About 71% of women exonerated in the last three decades were wrongfully convicted of crimes that never took place at all, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations. These “crimes” included events later determined to be accidents, deaths by suicide, and crimes that were fabricated.
6. More than a quarter of female exonerees were wrongly convicted of harming a child in their care.
About 28% of female exonerees were convicted of crimes in which the victim was a child, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.
These include nine women who were convicted of shaking a baby to death. Thousands of people have been accused, and many convicted, of harming children by violently shaking them and causing a condition known as Abusive Head Trauma (previously referred to as “shaken baby syndrome”). However, scientists and medical experts have said the three symptoms used to diagnose Abusive Head Trauma — diffuse brain swelling, subdural hemorrhage and retinal hemorrhages — can all result from many other causes, including diseases, falling at home, and even the birthing process, and that the concept of “shaken baby syndrome” has never been validated.
7. Only 13 women have been exonerated with the help of DNA evidence.
DNA evidence was central to proving the innocence of five of these women, and helped to prove the innocence of the eight other women together with other essential factors, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.
The number of women exonerated with the help of DNA evidence is significantly lower than the number of men exonerated by DNA evidence — more than 300 — in large part because of the types of crimes of which women tend to be convicted. More men are convicted of crimes like rape and murder, in which more DNA evidence is likely to be left behind, than women.
8. False or misleading forensic evidence contributed to the wrongful convictions of 94 women who have since been exonerated.
Errors in forensic testing, information based on unreliable or unproven forensic methods, fraudulent information or evidence, and forensic information presented with exaggerated and misleading confidence can all contribute to wrongful convictions. Such factors contributed to the wrongful convictions of at least 94 women, whose convictions have been overturned over the last three decades.