The U.S. has the highest number of incarcerated citizens per capita. Over 2.3 million people in this country are behind bars. Each month, the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center (CJC) releases monthly population reports on inmates in their system.
Every year the Colorado Department of Corrections compiles their own reports on the total population of male and female inmates in prison systems across the state. This past year, El Paso County noticed a spike in their female population.
Only 6.8 percent of all inmates in the U.S. are female. This statistic has not changed for over three years, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Males have always been overrepresented in both prisons and jails. While only 49.2 percent of the U.S. population is male, males account for over 93 percent of incarcerated citizens.
However, this past year in the State of Colorado, roughly 10 percent of inmates were female. While this number seems low, it is higher than the national average, with a 0.9 percent increase in female population since 2016 and a 1.2 percent increase in female population since 2015.
Colorado is incarcerating more females into jails and prisons than in past years. So, that begs the question: Why?
The Colorado Department of Corrections, the department responsible for issuing these monthly population and capacity reports, only breaks down the overall inmate population by gender, not type of offense by gender.
While the State doesn’t track these percentages, the El Paso County CJC does. The CJC reported that this past year female inmates accounted for 18 percent of felony charges and 16 percent of misdemeanors, a ratio similar to their overall inmate population.
Of El Paso County’s CJC population this month, 18.2 percent is female, with an average of 18.4 percent female population this year. This number has actually gone down since last year. September of 2016 was the CJC’s record high, with 20.1 percent of their general population female.
And while 20 percent is nowhere near equal, it is far from the national and state averages. So, what is behind the disproportionate rate of incarcerated females in El Paso County, as well as the State of Colorado? The El Paso County CJC has a few cursory explanations and theories.
Because of the changes in gender ratio in their population, the CJC has made a shift in the past three years to ensure their facility can accommodate female inmates. Wards in the CJC are classified by two factors: type of custody and type of inmate.
Type of custody refers to minimum, medium, or maximum custody and type of inmate refers to female or male. After an inmate is assigned to the appropriate gender ward, their status is evaluated based on custody level. Alpha (A) ward is the female ward; Bravo (B) and Charlie (C) wards are male wards. (Delta and Echo wards are reserved for separate inmate classifications, e.g. Veterans.)
“Over the past few years we’ve seen a huge rise in female inmates. We’ve gone from two female wards to five. We think this is probably because judges are finally taking females’ charges more seriously; courts used to be much more lenient on women,” Liz O’Neal, a classification specialist at the CJC explained.
Since 2011, Colorado’s incarceration rates have dropped below the national incarceration rates. The national incarceration rate as of 2017 is 397 per 100,000 people, while Colorado is at 338 per 100,000 people, reports the Bureau of Justice.
FBI Crime Reporting Statistics have noted that as of 2016, Colorado’s crime rates had dropped 8 percent in the past five years. This data point in particular becomes interesting in the context of an increase of incarcerated females. Without better data sets and more comprehensive data on incarcerated populations, it’s impossible to tell whether this increase is due to a bona fide increase of female committed crime, or a strengthening of response to crimes committed by females on the part of the courts.
Without specific data on what types of crime females are committing, or why El Paso County alone is on an upward trend, it is hard to say why the number of female inmates is increasing, especially with overall crime rates going down.