While men are more likely to be targeted by drug law enforcement, many of the drug war’s victims are women. Largely as a result of draconian drug laws, women are one of the fast growing segments of the U.S. prison population. Most women behind bars are mothers, many of them sole caregivers. Women, and particularly women of color, are disproportionately affected by drug law enforcement, by social stigma, by laws that punish those unable or unwilling to inform on others, by regulations that bar people with a drug conviction from obtaining public assistance, and by a drug treatment system designed for men.
Incarcerated women also have lower incomes than their male counterparts, making it more difficult for them to be able to afford cash bail, phone calls from prison, and ancillary services (such as babysitters) which they might require to meet all of their probation requirements.
Women are one of the fastest-growing segments of the prison population. Between 1978 and 2014, the number of women in state and federal prisons grew by nearly 800 percent. The U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s female population but it represents almost 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. Globally, the 25 jurisdictions that have the highest rates of women incarcerated are all U.S. states.
More than a quarter of women in state prison were incarcerated for drug offenses at the end of 2015, compared to 15 percent of men. More than 61 percent of women in federal prison are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to approximately 50 percent of men. Currently, there are 8,500 women in federal prisons on drug charges, 24,700 in state prisons and 27,000 in local jails. Of the 27,000 women in local jails on drug charges, a staggering 63 percent have not been convicted.