The Utah State Prison exceeded operational capacity for female inmates this week an occurrence that coincided with the release of a report highlighting the rising rate and changing racial profile of women in prison nationally.
The Sentencing Project report, released Wednesday, found an increase in the incarceration of white women nationally has led to a dramatic drop in racial disparity among female inmates. In 2000, black women were incarcerated at six times the rate of white women; by 2009, that disparity had dropped to less than three times the white rate.
The report also documented modest declines in incarceration rates for black men.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and author of the study, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the finding showed incarceration disparities can be addressed constructively.
"At the same time, it is sobering to note that the overall rise of imprisonment for women has outpaced that of men for three decades," Mauer said in statement.
The study found that the number of women incarcerated in state or federal prisons rose by 22 percent from 2000 to 2009; there was a 16 percent increase for men over that period.
The number of blacks in prison declined during that time period, while numbers for whites and Latinos increased.
Most notable was a 47 percent increase in the rate of white women in prison; at the same time, the rate of incarceration for black women fell 30 percent.
Overall, women now constitute 7 percent of the prison population, the report said, with 205,000 women overall in prison or jail.
The report, "The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women's Incarceration," used Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The Sentencing Project is a national nonprofit organization that conducts research and advocacy on criminal justice issues.
The Sentencing Project attributed the increase in female inmates over the past decade to "get tough" sentencing laws; women also were particularly affected by "war on drugs" policies. In 2009, a quarter of women in prison nationally were serving time for drug offenses. The study noted declining arrest rates for black women for drug crimes as well as violent and property crimes, while those rates rose property crimes in particular for white women.
The study noted that many property crimes are linked to drug use; it also observed the rise in the use of methamphetamine during the first decade of the 21st century, a drug disproportionately used by whites and Latinos.
It also said "broader socioeconomic trends" contributing to a declining life expectancy for low-income white women may be related to their rising incarceration rates.
Mauer said the data appears to reveal a shift in involvement in crime, rather than a change in law enforcement policy or practices.
In Utah, there were 646 women in state custody on Tuesday, five more than what is considered a comfortable operating capacity.
The prison has a maximum bed capacity for 671 women. The female prison population last bumped against the operational limit in 2008.
"In the short-term, the female population has grown more quickly than the department anticipated," said Steve Gehrke, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections. "We are looking at possibly managing that population through our jail contracting agreement with the counties. We would expect the population to level off at some point and more closely follow our long-term projections, but in the short run we continue to closely monitor this issue."
A majority of the women 469 were white. Women of color were overrepresented when compared to the state's minority population statistics. For example, while African Americans represent just over 1 percent of the state population, they comprise 4 percent of the prison's female population. Latinos represent 13 percent of the state population, but comprise 16 percent of the female prison population.
More than one-third of female inmates 227 are serving sentences for property crimes. Another 111, or 17 percent were imprisoned for crimes against persons, while 102 or 16 percent were serving time for alcohol and drug offenses.
Utah's female inmates, by race
Asian/Pacific Islander: 20
Native American/Alaskan: 25
Source: Utah Department of Corrections, Feb. 26, 2013.