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US women imprisoned in record numbers

48% rise since '95 tops that of males

WASHINGTON -- The number of women in state and federal prisons is at an all-time high and growing fast, as the incarceration rate for females is nearly twice that of men, the government reported yesterday.

There were 101,179 women in prisons last year, 3.6 percent more than in 2002, the Justice Department said. That marks the first time the women's prison population has topped 100,000, and continues a trend of rapid growth.

Overall, men are still far more likely than women to be in jail or prison, and black men are more likely than any other group to be imprisoned.

At the close of 2003, US prisons held 1,368,866 men, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. The total was 2 percent more than in 2002.

Expressed in terms of the population at large, that means that in 2003, one in every 109 US men was in prison. For women the figure was one in every 1,613.

Longer sentences, especially for drug crimes, and fewer prisoners granted parole or probation are the main reasons for the expanding US prison population, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to long prison terms for many kinds of crimes.

Prison populations began increasing three decades ago, and that trend continues. The new report compared 2003 figures with those from 1995.

The number of women in prison has grown 48 percent since 1995, when the figure was 68,468, the report said. The male prison population has grown 29 percent over that time, from 1,057,406.

Year by year, the number of women incarcerated grew an average of 5 percent, compared with an average annual increase of 3.3 percent for men.

The trend among women ''coincides exactly with the inception of the war on drugs" in the 1980s and continues into the 1990s, Mauer said. ''It represents a sort of vicious cycle of women engaged in drug abuse and often connected with financial or psychological dependence with a boyfriend" or other man involved in drug crime, Mauer said.

The prison figures do not fully reflect the number of people behind bars. About 80,000 women were in local jails last year, along with more than 600,000 men.

The federal prison system held a large share of female prisoners, 11,635 at the close of 2003. Texas held even more, 13,487. California, the nation's largest prison system, held 10,656 women. North Dakota had the fewest, 113.

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