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Research / Arizona / Criminal Justice

Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The Harm to Women and Families


After decades of sustained growth, Arizona today has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country, meaning it imprisons more of its residents than any other state except for Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Arizona’s prison growth cannot be justified by more crime or a larger state population. Instead, it was driven by policy decisions to send more people to prison for first-time and non-violent offenses, and to keep people in prison far beyond the national average.

Women have been especially impacted by these policy decisions. This report, the third in’ Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis series, examines an oft-hidden consequence of Arizona’s large prison population — the growing number of women behind bars. Female imprisonment has significant ripple effects. Women in prison in Arizona are often mothers and caretakers. Research shows that they are also often victims themselves, as the vast majority have endured past physical and sexual abuse. Today, Arizona imprisons women at almost twice the rate of other states.

Arizona’s rising imprisonment rate has also led to a growing number of families who have had a loved one incarcerated. Research shows that having a family member incarcerated significantly decreases household income, increases the likelihood of divorce and separation, and — for children — leads to a host of problems, including decreased mental and physical health and worsened school outcomes. This report will delve into new findings from a demographic study by and Cornell University on the share of people who have had a family member incarcerated and the consequences for families.

All three reports in this series were created using individual-level data on people admitted to Arizona prisons. The first report in the series, “The High Price of Prison Growth,” examines how the state reached this crisis point, and how Arizona’s outsized prison population has come at a high cost to the state’s economy. The second report, “The Cost to Communities,” analyzed these problems on the community level, revealing how some communities in Arizona bear the burden of over-imprisonment more than others. Experts on corrections data cleaned and analyzed prison data in accordance with national standards. See the methodology section for a description of our process and definitions.

The Harm to Women

While women and men enter prison through the same pathways, women are unique in several key ways. National research shows that incarcerated women are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to exhibit signs of a substance use disorder, including a high likelihood to have used drugs in the month before the crime, and to have been under the influence of drugs at the time of the offense. Women in prison are often victims themselves. Nationwide research conducted among women in jails found that a majority had survived or witnessed violence, including a shockingly high number — 86 percent — who endured sexual violence at some point in their lives. Finally, women in prison are often mothers and caretakers.

Today, women make up 9% of Arizona’s prison population. This is in line with, though slightly higher than national numbers. Across the country women make up only 7.5 percent of people held in state prisons.

The number of women in Arizona’s prisons has doubled since 2000, far outpacing the growth among men (56 percent) or the national growth in female prisoners. From 2000 to 2016, the total number of women in state prisons across the country grew 19 percent, compared to 104 percent growth in Arizona.

As the number of women in prison has grown rapidly, so has Arizona’s female imprisonment rate (the number of women behind bars for every 100,000 residents). The female imprisonment rate grew by over 50 percent since 2000. Today, Arizona imprisons women at almost twice the rate of other states, at 107 women in prison for every 100,000 residents compared to 57 per 100,000 nationally.

The first report in this series examined how Arizona’s use of prison compared to other states in the region. It detailed how Arizona has a similar crime rate to four of its five immediate neighbors — Utah, California, Colorado, and Nevada — but sends far more people to prison per capita. For women, Arizona is even more of an outlier among its neighbors. Overall, Arizona imprisons people at about three times the rate of Utah. For women, however, Arizona imprisons at four times the rate of Utah.

National research shows that incarcerated women often report high rates of substance use disorder, serious mental illness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While Arizona-specific information is limited, what is available aligns with these findings. According to an assessment conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections, 88 percent of women in prison in Arizona have moderate to intensive substance abuse treatment needs. That means that, as of 2017, there were more than 3,500 women in prison with unmet substance abuse treatment needs.

Many women in prison have someone at home who relies on them. Fifty-three percent reported having a dependent, likely a minor child. Nationwide, research has shown that a majority of mothers in prison lived with their children prior to their incarceration. The same research found that mothers in prison are often single parents, meaning that, when they go to prison, their children are more likely to end up in foster care or other government-funded out-of-home placement.

The Harm to Families

As the number of men and women behind bars has grown substantially over the past 40 years, in Arizona, as well as nationally, so has the number of families who have had a loved one taken away. New research from and researchers at Cornell University shows that one in two adults (45 percent) has had an immediate family member spend at least one night in jail or prison.

This shocking new estimate of family incarceration is the result of online and phone surveys of a national representative sample of more than 4,000 adults in the summer of 2018. According to survey results, more than 113 million people have had a parent, sibling, child, spouse, or co-parent incarcerated.

While many of the individuals included in this study experienced only short-term family incarceration, long prison sentences also affect a surprising number of families. One in seven adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated for longer than one year, and one in 34 has had an immediate family incarcerated for more than 10 years.

The second report in this series, Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The Cost to Communities, showed that imprisonment disproportionately impacts communities of color. This new research finds similar results for families — black and Hispanic people are more likely to have had a loved one incarcerated, particularly for long prison sentences. More than six in 10 black adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated and nearly one-third have had an immediate family member incarcerated for more than one year. These rates are 42 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for white people and 48 percent and 17 percent for Hispanic people.

The Impact of Incarceration on Families

Incarceration does not just impact the person who is sent to jail or prison, it reverberates into the lives of their loved ones with severe consequences for their financial security, health, and emotional well-being. According to past research, two in three families (65 percent) were unable to meet basic needs such as food, housing, and medical care while their family member was incarcerated. For children, having a parent incarcerated has been shown to cause emotional stress and financial hardship, which leads to a wide range of problems and limits their future success. Numerous studies have also found that incarceration leads to less stable families. Male incarceration is strongly correlated with a lower likelihood of marriage and higher rates of divorce and separation.

To learn more about the scope and consequences of familial incarceration, please see the full report, Every Second: The Impact of Incarceration on Families in America, available at

Women have been particularly impacted by the growing use of prison for non-violent, first-time felonies.

As reported in the first report in this series, Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, the state has increasingly sent people to prison for non-violent and first-time felony offenses instead of alternatives like probation or drug treatment. These trends have been pronounced — and detrimental — for women, since these are the crimes for which women are most likely to be sent to prison.

For more information on how “non-violent” and “first-time” designations were made, please see the methodology section.

The vast majority — seven out of 10 people — entering prison in Arizona are being punished for a non-violent crime. This trend is even more acute for women, with eight out of every 10 women who went to prison last year sent for nothing more serious than a non-violent offense.

Arizona has become progressively more punitive towards women since 2000. From 2000 to 2017, the number of women entering Arizona’s prisons for non-violent crimes has grown by 92 percent.

Some of this growth has come from women who were originally given an alternative sentence in the community— such as probation or drug court — but failed to follow the rules, and were sentenced to prison as a consequence, called a revocation . However, this is not the majority of the growth — most of it has come from more women being sentenced to prison directly from court. This group has grown by 184 percent since 2000, and now comprises half of all the women sent to prison for non-violent crimes.

This growth has been particularly pronounced for property and drug offenses. The number of women sentenced directly to prison for these non-violent offenses has increased by more than 250 percent since 2000.

These practices contradict the growing body of research demonstrating that prison terms do not reduce recidivism more than alternatives like probation or drug court. Matched samples of people sent to prison or sentenced to prison alternatives have consistently found no differences in re-arrest or re-conviction rates, even when controlling for individuals’ education, employment, drug abuse status, and current offense.

Among the 10 most common offenses for which women were sent to prison in 2017, nine were non-violent, including drug possession, driving under the influence, and drug distribution. The number of women admitted to prison for many of these non-violent offenses grew exponentially since 2000. The number of women sent to prison for drug possession, for instance, increased by 137 percent. The number of women sent to prison for shoplifting grew by 200 percent.

Alongside growth in admissions for non-violent crimes, Arizona has also significantly increased the number of women sent to prison on their first felony conviction. In 2000, only four percent of women admitted to prison had no prior felony convictions. By 2017, that proportion had grown to 34 percent. Alongside growth in the overall number of women admitted to prison, this means that 449 women were sent to prison in 2017 on their first felony conviction compared to 19 in 2000.

This trend is not evidence-based. Research shows that people sent to prison on their first conviction may be particularly vulnerable to the criminogenic effect of prison — in other words, they may be more likely to reoffend when they come out than when they went in.

Women in Arizona spend far longer in prison than women nationally.

As shown in the first report in this series, Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, Arizona keeps people in prison significantly longer than other states. This is also true for women — and especially so for women sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses. These additional months and years behind bars are not making Arizona safer. Researchers have studied similar people in prison with shorter and longer sentences and have consistently found that longer sentences do not make people less likely to commit another crime in the future.

Regardless of the type of crime, women in Arizona go to prison for longer. For drug crimes, Arizona women spend an average of five more months behind bars than women nationally. For property crimes, this disparity is even greater: Arizona’s women spend eight months longer in prison.

For the most common crimes for which women are sent to prison, drug possession and driving under the influence (DUI/DWI), women are sentenced to around a year behind bars. A year in prison, though shorter than the vast majority of sentences handed out in Arizona, comes at a high cost. Even relatively short periods of incarceration come with a host of destabilizing impacts, including the potential loss of a home, job, and partner.

There are particularly high costs for women with children. The separation creates intense stress for both women and children. While incarcerated, it is often difficult for children to see their mothers due to travel costs and other barriers. Studies have found that children have poorer grade retention in the years immediately following their mother’s entry into prison, and that adolescents are far more likely to drop-out of school in the year that their mother enters jail or prison.

Where female imprisonment hits hardest

The second report in this series, Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The Cost to Communities, revealed the unequal burden of prison in Arizona. It found that some communities in the state, particularly rural areas and communities of color, bear the burden of imprisonment far more than others. This is also true when looking only at women — though the impacted groups differ. As the number of women sent to prison in Arizona has nearly doubled since 2000, much of it has come at the cost of older women, white and Hispanic women, and women from rural areas of the state.

Growth in the number of women sent to prison has not been felt equally across generations. The majority of women admitted to prison today are between 25 and 39 years old, a group that has grown substantially since 2000. However, admissions for older women, those who are 40 and above, have increased at an even faster rate — growing by 141 percent since 2000.

Much of this accelerating growth among older women can be attributed to the state’s increasing use of prison for drug crimes. Older women are slightly more likely to be sent to prison for drug crimes than younger women. Forty percent of women admitted to prison between the ages of 40 and 54 were sent for drug crimes, and 45 percent of women over the age of 55, compared to 37 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 39. DUI/DWI is the second most common crime at admission for older women, after simple drug possession.

This growth has also not been felt equally across racial and ethnic groups. Since 2000, the number of white women sent to prison has nearly doubled and the number of Hispanic women sent to prison has grown by 134 percent, while the number of black women has stayed relatively constant. This data shows that there has also been substantial growth in the number of Native American women sent to prison in Arizona — though this likely is not the full picture. Since crimes committed on reservations are often handled by tribal or federal authorities, women who commit crimes in those areas may be incarcerated in federal or tribal facilities, rather than state facilities.

This growth has also come from some areas of the state more than others. The vast majority of women who were sentenced to prison in the last five years came from the most populous county in Arizona, Maricopa, followed by urban Pima and Pinal counties. Due to their sizes, these counties are primarily responsible for much of the growth in female admissions. Maricopa alone is responsible for just under 50 percent of statewide growth in female admissions, followed by Pinal (14 percent), Pima (11 percent), and Yavapai (9 percent).

While urban counties are primarily responsible for the growth, rural counties are sending a much higher percentage of their female residents to prison. Graham County, a rural county in the southeast part of the state, has by far the highest rate of female imprisonment, followed by similarly rural Greenlee County. This trend for women echoes a larger trend discussed in more detail in the second report in this series — that, in proportion to their population, rural counties use prison more than urban counties.


Over the last two decades, Arizona has increasingly turned to more and longer prison sentences in responding to less serious crimes. As a group that rarely commits violent crimes, women have been particularly hurt by this change, and have seen their numbers behind bars skyrocket since 2000. These policies have also come at a great cost to families, as more are living apart from a loved one and suffering the consequences of family separation.

Arizona’s imprisonment crisis has come at a high price to the state’s women and families. As shown in the first two reports in this series, it has also come at a great cost to Arizona’s economies and communities. These costs are incalculable. They are also avoidable. Red and blue states across the country are getting more public safety with smaller prison populations through innovative, research-driven policy reforms. It’s time for Arizona to follow these proven examples. It can no longer afford the alternative.


Unless otherwise cited, the analyses in this report were conducted by using individual-level data acquired from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) covering over 30 years and nearly half a million records. Data was cleaned and coded for analysis by researchers and statisticians with extensive experience working with federal, state, and local corrections agencies across the country. To learn more about our researchers and the data and definitions used, see the full methodology in Part I and Part II of the report.

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