This commentary originally appeared in the McAllen Monitor on June 12, 2015.
Incarceration rates have skyrocketed across the county and in Texas over the last few decades due to rising crime rates, which have caused a dramatic increase in female prisoners.
From 1980 to 2010, the number of female prisoners multiplied by 646 percent — increasing from about 15,000 to 113,000 inmates nationally. That spike is 150 percent the rate of male prisoners during that time period.
One reason is that female inmates are more likely to be convicted of nonviolent crimes than male inmates. In Oklahoma, which hosts the largest female inmate population, 80 percent of the incarcerated female population was convicted of a nonviolent offense.
But incarceration of women takes its toll on society and poses several unique challenges not present in male incarceration. Female inmates, for instance, are much more likely to head single-parent households and must find caretakers for their children while incarcerated. That’s not always possible, however, and many children are removed by Child Protective Services and put in the care of the state.
Depending upon the length of incarceration and the child’s age, parental rights may be terminated. Time spent in foster care — even short periods — has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood of future criminal behavior by male children, particularly during adolescence.
Beyond the heightened impact on families, female inmates are more likely to need medical assistance or have a mental health disorder that requires treatment. While a little over half of the male inmate population has a mental disability, almost three quarters of female inmates do. Convicted females also pose a significantly lower risk to public safety. Aside from much lower rates of violent crime, recidivism rates overall are historically lower for women than men.
This is not to say that women should not punished for their criminal behavior. To the contrary, Texas prides itself on providing justice. In recent years, however, Texas has realized that incarceration is often not always the best option for public safety or the public purse. The rise in incarceration rates of women has affected the entirety of Texas, McAllen included.
Texas appears to be headed on the right track toward lowering the number of female inmates through alternatives methods that could not only help families but also save taxpayer funds. However, there are still large numbers of non-violent offenders who are being housed by the state when they could be with their families and earning a living.
Community supervision possibilities, such as probation and parole should be increased for low-risk incarcerated mothers so they can pay their debt to society, while continuing to care and provide for their families.
Dianna Muldrow is a research associate with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.