Michelle Scott, 38, has been arrested at least five times from 2000 to 2007 in Florida, according to court records. Most of her charges stem from stealing cars or some other type of theft. Since her last arrest, Scott has struggled to pull her life together. The mom of a 12-year old boy and an adult daughter, Scott, who is black, struggles with depression, and currently lives in a homeless shelter working less than 20 hours a week as a housekeeper. Because of her criminal history, stable jobs and housing are hard to come by.
"I want to see the system change, especially for single mothers with a criminal history," she says. "It's a lack of resources out there and they just tell you there's not much they can do to help you. You're on your own."
In some ways, Scott's story resembles that of a lot of women who've been through the criminal justice system. About 80 percent of women in jails are single mothers, according to Overlooked: Women and Jail in an Era of Reform, a newly released study from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that focuses on criminal justice reform and strengthening families.
The study takes a wide-ranging and historical look at how jail systems in the U.S. affect women, a topic that has seen very limited research. Liz Swavola, one of the study's' authors and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, said much of the existing research on the criminal justice system is male-centered. "This research is just a first step, but there needs to be more data with a specific eye on women and gender," she said.
Though there is an ongoing national discussion about federal prison reforms, Swavola says, local jails have been overlooked and left out of the those conversations, to the detriment of women. "Reform needs to happen at every decision point across the criminal justice system," she says.
To be sure, the jail population is mostly male. Women represent 15 percent of the jail population in smaller counties, and slightly less in larger counties. But according to the study, the overall population of women in jails has ballooned since the 1970s, from just under 8,000 to nearly 110,000 nationwide in 2014, with low-income women of color disproportionately represented — 64 percent of women in jails across the country are women of color.
And while local jail populations are among the fastest growing correctional populations for both men and women, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that from 2000 to 2010, the female jail population grew at a faster rate than the male population.
Small counties with less than 250,000 people are seeing the fastest rate of growth for women in jail, the Vera Institute researchers found. For instance, in Stokes County, North Carolina, women made up 32 percent of the jail population in 2013, much more than the national average.
Swavola said existing research does not clearly explain the fast growth of the women's population in small-county jails, but she pointed out that smaller counties can have fewer resources for social services, mental health resources and employment opportunities. "In those communities, they rely on incarceration to deal with people with mental and behavioral challenges," says Swavola.
Laurie Garduque, director of Justice Reform for the MacArthur Foundation, which funded the study, says in many places around the country, jails have essentially become warehouses for the poor. Like men, most women in jail ended up there for nonviolent offenses. The study found that in Davidson County, Tennessee, for example, 77 percent of women were booked into jail on misdemeanor charges. The most common charge was failure to appear after receiving a citation.
"Much of the problems that bring women into the criminal justice system...tend to be low-level offenses or nuisance behavior that do not pose a risk to public safety," says Garduque.
In their analysis, the researchers also found that 32 percent of women in U.S. jails suffer from serious mental illness, including major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Garduque says the trauma of being in jail can make it harder to cope with existing mental health problems. She says police officers, corrections officers and other employees in the criminal justice system need better training on how to interact with people with mental illnesses, and that this new research shows that mental health programs need to be more accessible outside of jail.
"Our aim here is not to improve mental health programs in jails," says Garduque. "Our aim is to provide those resources on the community-based level to prevent women from penetrating the system."
What's more, many women enter the jail system having already experienced significant trauma. "There is a history of physical and domestic abuse for a lot of our moms," says Samuel Luddington, deputy director of programs at Children of Inmates in Miami, which helps incarcerated parents stay connected with their children. Luddington says the current system wasn't set up to provide that sort of care.
As for life after jail, re-entry programs that are developed with gender in mind are among the most effective, says Swavola, the co-author of study. For instance, Connecticut tried out a pilot probation program along those lines from 2007 to 2010. The project was based on the Women Offender Case Management Model developed by National Institute of Corrections. It was designed to take into account risk factors that girls and women tend to face at higher rates, such as domestic violence and mental illness. and partner abuse. It also encouraged women to have a voice in their own case management.
A review of women on probation who participated in the Connecticut program found those women were about 11 percent less likely to be arrested again after one year compared to women who did not participate in the program.
In Los Angeles, a women's re-entry court serves as an alternative when women on probation or parole get a new felony charge. "In lieu of a prison or jail stay, it provides intensive mental health and substance abuse treatment services, case management, and employment support specifically for women," researchers reported.
But these examples and results are not widespread across the country, and that needs to change, says Swavola. "We need to think think about how to support women and help them to succeed," she says. "Reforms are not reaching women."
Scott, the Florida mom of two who is currently living in a homeless shelter, says life after jail has been incredibly challenging. She participated in parenting classes with Children of Inmates in Miami to strengthen her bond with her children, and said that helped. "It was all about rebuilding that relationship and trust because I was in and out of their lives because of the choices I made," says Scott.
Now, she says she would like to provide for her 12-year old son, who lives with his father. But so far, Scott hasn't found safe housing or full-time employment. "Because of my past and background, I get denied all the time," she says. "It's really disappointing, but I have to to think of my child and continue to make the right choices while I wait on a door to open."