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MPR News

The number of women in prison is rising. Why?

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A female prisoner in Niantic, Conn.
A female prisoner shows off her tattoos at the York Community Reintegration Center last spring in Niantic, Connecticut.
John Moore | Getty Images

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women rose more than 700 percent.

This staggering statistic comes from The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research and advocacy center.

What's behind the drastic increase? Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an assistant professor in Temple University's criminal justice department, and Valena Beety, an associate professor of law at West Virginia University, joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to discuss the factors behind the numbers.

"The increase in convictions for non-violent offenses, it's directly tied to the war on drugs," Beety said. "And we've seen how the war on drugs is not a war on all people who use or sell or are involved with drugs. It's on people of color who use and sell, and people in poverty who do so. We see this disparate impact on women as well."

The Sentencing Project report showed African-American women were incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white women; Hispanic women at 1.2 times the rate. Poverty is just one of the factors behind this disparity.

Gonzalez Van Cleve spent a decade studying the Cook County criminal court in Chicago, one of the largest criminal courts in the country.

"What you see when women are charged and you read their cases closely, they're property offenses like shoplifting, for instance. Many of them are stealing warm coats, children's coasts — crimes, in some way, of poverty," Gonzalez Van Cleve said. "It's kind of a tragedy that's often overlooked by judges and prosecutors. They don't dive deep into these cases to see these female defendants as actual people."

One of the biggest consequences of the rising incarceration rate for women is the effect on children.

"If a woman is a sole parent and she's in prison for over a year — for 15 months — then her parental rights will be terminated," Beety said. "It's seen as abandonment. This does not affect men as often, because when men are in prison, often the mother is on the outside taking care of the child, so they don't lose their rights."

"In some ways, these small drugs offenses act as life sentences that cascade through generations, and to me, that is the greatest harm," Gonzalez Van Cleve said. "You are affecting inequality on a child's life, and in some ways, predestining them to a life of very harsh consequences."

This conversation is the second in a series on criminal justice. Throughout the month of January, MPR News with Kerri Miller will host discussions on different facets of the justice system. Part 1: The future of private prisons

For the full conversation on the factors behind rising incarceration rates, the ramifications for families and potential alternatives, use the audio player above.