GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the total number of inmates at the Kent County Correctional Facility declines, the number of female inmates has been rising for nearly a decade. Officials say it could cause capacity issues.
Currently, the main women’s unit at the jail is at 75 percent capacity. Officials say it can be a headache to figure out where to put all of the women.
“As you can see, every housing unit could be different, but all the housing units on this floor is the same,” Kent County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy of Corrections Chuck Dewitt showed 24 Hour News 8 on Thursday during a tour of units where female inmates might stay.
“No more than two people in the cell. Obviously they have their own bathroom,” Dewitt pointed out.
He said housing units are becoming more difficult to supervise due to the number of female inmates.
“When we’re at higher capacity levels, that gives us our staff less options to manage the behavior problems that we see with the female populations,” Dewitt said.
Dewitt says new booking numbers in 2008 were 6,172. In 2015, the figure jumped to 6,420 — a roughly 5 percent increase. Women accounted for roughly 26 percent of the total inmate population, compared to 21 percent in 2008.
This as the total number of inmates has declined since 2003. That year, total new bookings were at 33,072. In 2015, the number dropped to 24,693.
“A bed doesn’t equate to a bed. We can’t just put any female — or any male for that matter — in a bed. There’s a number of factors that go into making that classification decision,” Dewitt said.
Inmates are classified as maximum, medium or minimum security. Men are housed in a number of units based on those guidelines.
But Dewitt said the women inmates are all housed on one floor regardless of their offense because there are fewer of them than men. And he said management is difficult when there’s a broad range of offenders and fewer beds.
“What we’re doing today is not meeting the needs of the populations that we serve and we need to come up with some innovative ways to be able to manage that,” Dewitt said.
JUDGE: INCREASE MAY BE DUE TO CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
Why are more women ending up behind bars? 24 Hour News 8 asked a man who’s been handing down sentences for more than 30 years.
“Women are moving into a lot of areas where men at one time dominated the field,” 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston said.
He said that in 2016, he sentenced defendants in 470 felony cases, 88 of whom are women — about 19 percent. Of the 88, 30 were sentenced to jail,10 were sentenced to prison and the other 48 were given probation.
The number of women defendants was much higher than he anticipated.
“Mostly … crimes of peculation involving theft and conversion of funds,” he explained.
He said a disproportionate number of defendants in embezzlement cases are women — potentially because they may hold more bookkeeping-type positions and are gaining traction in the corporate world.
Women are still not committing the majority of violent crimes.
“Not so much. It’s not often that you see women involved in violent crime. It does happen, certainly, but at a much lower rate,” Johnston said.
He says there are occasional cases where women are involved in domestic violence.
It also may come down to the concept that traditional roles for women have changed and the way judges approach sentences is different — in the past, there may have been more motivation to keep women out of jail, especially if they had children.
“Some of us are probably old enough to have a slight chivalrous streak, kind of hate to have women incarcerated as a general proposition,” Johnston said.