Imprisonment rates for women have increased significantly over the past few years. This increase, relative to the trend for male prisoners, has implications relating to the overall rise in prison populations and the subsequent planning issues for prisons.

This paper aims to identify the factors that are contributing to this greater increase in the rate for women prisoners (the reference period of 1995 to 2002 indicates a 60% increase in rate per 100,000 population) as compared to male prisoners. The behavior and characteristics of female prisoners, including the types of offences committed, prior imprisonment, age and Indigenous status provide possible explanations. In addition, changes in sentencing practice, such as whether women are being

treated more harshly than previously by the judiciary and whether more unsentenced women are being held in prisons, could also shed some light on the apparent trend. The United Kingdom has experienced similar increases in women in prison over the past decade, with recent research suggesting that sentencing practice has been the main influencing factor despite the fact that women tend to commit the less serious types of offences and also tend to reoffend less often than men. Preliminary analysis of Australian prison population figures for women suggests that the age and Indigenous status profiles of female prisoners have shifted only slightly over the course of the reference period. However the nature of the crimes committed has changed. The number of women imprisoned for non-violent crimes has decreased, while the number imprisoned for violent crimes has increased (with robbery being the most notable increase). Considering this, further analysis of offence types, prior convictions and aggregate sentence lengths over time will be conducted in order to identify factors possibly contributing to the large increase of women in prison.


One of the most fundamental characteristics of incarcerated populations is that they are constituted almost entirely by male prisoners. In June of 2002 there were 21,008 males in Australian prisons and 1,484 females (ABS, Prisoner Census, 2002). That is, males accounted for more than 93% of the Australian prison population.

The reason for this overwhelming disparity in prison populations is quite clear. For the most part, crime is committed by young males. Involvement of males in crime of all types is much greater than involvement of females, with greater differences being evident for the more serious crimes. This disparity has been observed in both official (police) and unofficial (self-report) measures of crime.

There are a number of reasons that have been proposed in the literature for this differential involvement in criminal behaviour. These reasons tend to focus on two main proposals: that women are inherently less inclined to crime in general and to serious crime in particular; and that women are treated differently by the courts.

Whatever the reason for the clear difference in involvement in criminal behaviour, the resulting disparity in prison populations can be found around the world. However in the last decade, and particularly in the last five years, there has been a disproportionately rapid growth in the number of

women in prison. At the prisoner census on 30 June 1995, there were 835 women and 16,593 men in the national prisoner population of 17,428. During the seven years to 30 June 2002, the absolute number of male prisoners increased by 27% while the absolute number of females increased by 78%. The proportion of women in the prison population has risen from 4.8% in 1995 to 6.6% in 2002. The most telling figure is the rate of incarceration per 100,000 population: for males the rate has increased from 245.9 in 1995 to 282.4 in 2002, a rise of almost 15%. But for females, the rate of imprisonment has jumped from 12.0 per 100,000 population in 1995 to 19.2 per 100,000 in 2002. This 60% increase in the rate of female imprisonment is four times the increase for males.

This significant increase in the numbers of female prisoners and the rates of female imprisonment are not unique to Australia. A recent study conducted by the British Home Office (2002) shows that the proportion of women in British prisons rose from 3.9% in 1995 to 5.6% in 2001. The number of women in prison increased from 1993 to 2001 by 140% while the number of men increased only

46% during that period. These