SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — California may be helping to reverse a decades-long trend of growing populations of women in U.S. jails.

Possibly due to the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced some drug possession and property crime felonies to misdemeanors, and a dearth of community programs that focus on helping mothers stay out of jail, the number of women in California jails decreased in 2015.

An August 2016 study, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, found that female populations in U.S. jails have skyrocketed since the 1970s, and at a rate outpacing men.

While the number of people in the country’s approximately 3,000 county or municipality-run detention facilities has increased five-fold since 1970, the number of women in jails increased almost 14-fold since 1970, according to the study.

In U.S. jails, where individuals are primarily being held after being arrested, but not yet convicted of any crimes, the study found that women make up almost
110,000 of the 745,000 inmates, or almost 15 percent.

The study doesn’t take a state-by state approach to looking at jail populations.

But a review by CBS San Francisco of the jail population in California before and after the 2014 passage of Proposition 47 showed an overall decline of 9 percent, as well as a reduced percentage of women in California jails.

While California had a female jail population below the national average prior to the passage of Proposition 47, the percentage of women in jail decreased even further after the legislation’s passage.

In mid-2014, just months before the passage of Proposition 47, there were 82,923 inmates in California jails on any given day. Of those, roughly 13.53 percent, or 11,220 inmates, were women, according to California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) jail profile survey.

In late-2015, the most recent available data, California jails had decreased their overall jail population to 73,891 inmates in custody on any given day. Of those inmates, 9,704 were female, or 13.13 percent, according to BSCC’s jail profile survey.

The percentage of female inmates in California jails declined by roughly .4 percent from 2014 to 2015 due to the passage of Proposition 47, according to BSCC data. That data does not include prisons.

While the state has not yet fully reinvested correctional savings into behavioral health treatments and prevention programs, a key component of Proposition 47, those investments could further decrease the percentage of women in jail, most of whom are there for nonviolent offenses. 

The study states that 82 percent of women in U.S. jails are there on charges stemming from non-violent offenses.

“Like men in jail, they are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use,” write the study’s authors, Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley, and Ram Subramanian.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75 percent of women in U.S. jails reported having had symptoms of a mental health disorder at some point in the 12 months prior to being in jail. Thirty-two percent of women in U.S. jails were suffering from serious mental illnesses.

Programs implemented in California jails were cited throughout the study as potential models for other states, but the study also showed some serious health and family issues plaguing women in American jails, including those in California.

According to the study , women in California jails say they don’t always get the menstrual products they need and that a survey of women in California’s Santa Clara County Jail found that it took about 30 days for women to see a doctor after they submitted a medical request.

The study highlights the work of San Francisco nonprofit organizations, including Community Works and Cameo House, which offer a wide range of services to help mothers and pregnant women in jail and prepare them for family reunification following their release.

Women’s Reentry Achievement Program, or WRAP, in California’s Solano County, is also highlighted as a program that provides a diverse mix of resources to mothers in jail and after their release.

Nearly 80 percent of women in U.S. jails are mothers, the study found.

The study suggests that jail programs aimed at helping mothers could help reduce recidivism among women and ease the challenges they face upon returning to their communities and families.

By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.