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Disruption of families through incarceration of parents has become an increasingly serious problem over the past decade. The prison population has grown dramatically, and for women prisoners the increases in the population are particularly striking. From 1980 through 1990, the number of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons increased from 13,420 to 43,845, an increase of 227 percent. In a single year, from 1988 to 1989, the number of incarcerated women increased by 24.4 percent. In 1990 there were an additional 37,844 women in local jails. For men the prison population increased by 130 percent from 316,401 to 727,398 between 1980 and 1990.

A large portion of these prisoners are parents. Although statistics concerning the number of parents separated from their minor children through incarceration are imprecise and not entirely reliable, some information is available. In 1986, 67.5 percent of the state women prisoners in the United States had at least one child under the age of eighteen, and 68 percent of those women had more than one child. Assuming that a similar percentage of women confined to federal prisons and local jails are parents and that the 1986 estimate is valid for 1990 data, there probably were at least 55,000 mothers of minor children incarcerated nationally in 1990. There were undoubtedly an even larger number of incarcerated fathers in 1990. In 1986, 54.4 percent of male prisoners had children under the age of eighteen. In addition to the growing numbers of parents who are separated from their children, increasing sentence lengths mean that these families are being kept apart for longer periods of time. In 1986 approximately one-third of the women sentenced to state prison received maximum sentences of seven years or more, and almost 93 percent received sentences with a maximum of four .years or more. For men the average maximum sentence was seven years.


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