Opioid Crisis Has Put More Women Than Ever Behind Bars

Opioid Crisis Has Put More Women Than Ever Behind Bars


Women represent the fastest growing prison population in America. Nationwide, the number of women incarcerated rose from just over 13,000 in 1980 to more than 102,000 in 2016.

There has been a 716 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated in the United States since 1980. According to the Sentencing Project, while the rate of arrests for drug possession or use doubled among men between 1980 and 2009, it tripled for women. The scourge of opioid abuse has only served to make the problem worse.   

Data shows women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for drug and property offenses. Twenty-five percent of female prisoners have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14 percent of male prisoners, while 27 percent of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to only 17 percent of men serving time.

Interestingly, the rate of African American women imprisoned has declined since 2000, while the rate of White and Hispanic women has continued to rise. For example, between 2000 and 2016, the number of Black women held in state and federal prisons declined by 53 percent while the number of White women imprisoned rose by 44 percent. These numbers are reflective of the impact the opioid crisis is having on rural White communities around the nation.

The rate of women in prison varies from state to state. Oklahoma holds the number one position in the nation with 149 females incarcerated per 100,000 women in the state. Rhode Island boasts the least number of women incarcerated per 100,00 with 13, while in 2016, California ranked in the bottom quartile with 30 incarcerated females per every 100,000 female residents in the state.

The profound increase in the number of incarcerated women nationally, is the result of what the Sentencing Project defined as, “. . . more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.”

A woman’s road to recovery and rehabilitation is usually more complicated than it is for men and as a result, can also be costlier. Too often their recovery from addiction is complicated because so many women have also experienced trauma or abuse as children and/or adults.

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