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Idaho has the highest female incarceration rate in the country

A prison cell at the Idaho Department of Correction with a bunk bed and the door open.
Rebecca Boone
A cell in the Idaho State Correctional Center in Kuna Idaho in 2018.

Idaho incarcerates women at a higher rate than any other state in the country, according to an annual report released late last year by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

110 per 100,000 women in Idaho were incarcerated in 2020; a rate more than double the national average.

The Idaho Department of Correction has been aware of Idaho’s high female incarceration rate for years, and is concerned about it, said Bree Derrick, the deputy director.

“The system was designed for men, and we know that's not particularly effective in helping women be prepared to be successful in our communities,” she said. “We also know that when we incarcerate women, we are having an impact on their children.”

Derrick said when female “riders” — people who are incarcerated in an IDOC facility, but are under court jurisdiction until it determines whether to sentence them or put them on probation — are removed from the total number of people in prison, Idaho’s female incarceration rate improves, but just slightly.

Idaho’s rate also decreased from 2019 to 2020, but so did the U.S. imprisonment rate as a whole due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Derrick said women who are incarcerated at IDOC facilities tend to have higher rates of mental health and substance use issues than the general public. They are also more likely to have experienced childhood traumas.

“They've just been through a lot. And that is not to negate their responsibility and their criminal action, but it's to say there's fundamentally some root cause that's probably related to this criminal behavior that we probably have not been addressing that well,” Derrick said.

More investments could be made to divert them from the criminal justice system. Derrick noted that Gov. Brad Little has included $2.5 million in his budget proposal for pre-prosecution diversion strategies, a recommendation made both by the Opioid Task Force and the Idaho Behavioral Health Council.

Little’s budget also includes $112 million for a new 848-bed minimum custody women’s prison in Boise, which would open up prison space, currently used for women, for minimum custody males.

“Our approach is not to build more prisons so we can fill them. We are overcapacity,” Derrick said. “Unfortunately, we've been in a circumstance where we've had to put women, on an emergency basis, into a facility that was actually designed for men.”

Erica Marshall, a criminal justice advocate, started the nonprofit Idaho Justice Project last year, and Idaho’s female incarceration rate is one of its initial focus areas. Marshall said she's hoping to form a working group of formerly incarcerated women to guide policy proposals.

“What kinds of policy changes should we be working towards with Idaho legislators and Idaho leaders to implement so we can address this really high level of female incarceration,” Marshall said.

She said the first step is to dig into the data to unpack why Idaho’s rate is so high.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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