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While these statistics may not come as a total surprise, it may still shock some people to learn that while women comprise only seven percent of the total prison population in the U.S., the rate at which they are incarcerated has risen by an astounding 646 percent over the last three decades.

What makes this figure more shocking still is that research has revealed that the vast majority of women behind bars are nonviolent offenders with little work experience, limited education and histories of abuse. It has also been found them to be more likely than their male counterparts to have children who rely on them for support.

Interestingly, a proposal is now being floated in Britain, which has a not dissimilar situation concerning its female inmates, to address this situation: shut down all women’s prisons.

Specifically, the idea would be to hand down community-based sentences for nonviolent offenders and keep violent offenders in smaller custodial centers closer to where their families live.

While there are no signs that this will become the norm in Britain anytime soon, it has served to spark a dialogue here in the U.S., with some arguing that the idea is perhaps not as far-fetched as it may sound.

Indeed, some have pointed to the success of a program right here in Oklahoma, which currently has the highest rate of female incarceration per capita in the nation. However, 80 percent of these inmates are locked up for nonviolent offenses like property crimes or drug crimes.

The program, Women in Recovery, serves as a sort of prison alternative for those women convicted of felonies linked to drug or alcohol addiction (with admission priority given to those with small children). It provides everything from housing assistance and family reunification services to employment services and treatment programs.

The five-year-old program has seen considerable success to date with roughly 68 percent of women who graduate from the 18-month program staying free and clear of any involvement with the criminal justice system.

While this certainly makes for an interesting debate, the chances of women’s prisons being shut down in the U.S. are incredibly slim. Nevertheless, these conversations should perhaps prompt officials to at least start discussing alternatives to prison like we have here in Oklahoma.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

Source: The Washington Post, “We should stop putting women in jail. For anything.” Patricia O’Brien, Nov. 6, 2014