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A Closer Look at Women’s Arrest Rates

photo - Arrest of a Woman

Historically, men have been arrested at much higher rates than women in California. However, a recent PPIC report found that while arrest rates declined for both men and women, they dropped significantly more for men than for women (57% and 13%, respectively) between 1980 and 2016. A closer look at gender breakdowns underscores some differences in arrest offenses of men and women—and suggests that they may be differently affected by criminal justice reforms.

Women are still arrested at significantly lower rates than men (1,603 arrests per 100,000 female residents in 2016, compared to 5,270 arrests per 100,000 male residents), but they now represent a larger share of total arrests statewide than they did in 1980, up from about 13% to almost 24%. A closer look reveals they also tend to be arrested for different types of offenses. Relative to their overall share of arrests, women represented a disproportionate share of arrests for property offenses (32%), compared to 23% of arrests for violent offenses and 22% for drug offenses. In stark contrast, women only make up about 7% of felony weapons arrests.

A look at trends in female arrest rates by race/ethnicity shows a decline for women of all races, with greater declines among non-white women. Between 1989—when overall arrest rates peaked—and 2016, arrest rates fell more dramatically for men than for women across all races/ethnicities, but the size of the gender gap varied:

  • Arrest rates for white women fell 25%, while arrest rates for white men fell 55%.
  • Arrest rates among Latino women declined by 35%, while rates for Latino men fell 68%.
  • Rates for African American women fell 42%, while rates for African American men fell 58%.

figure - Declines in Arrest Rates Have Been Greater Among Non-white Women

These differing trends are mostly driven by misdemeanor arrest rates, which have declined much more dramatically among men than among women. In 1980, women represented 14% of misdemeanor arrests, but in 2016 this share jumped to 25%, in part due to an increase in female arrest rates for misdemeanor assault and battery offenses. The female share of felony arrests also increased, up from roughly 12% in 1980 to almost 20% in 2016.

While many factors likely contribute to these trends, California’s criminal justice reforms—which have largely focused on property and drug offenses—are likely to have played a role, with different effects on arrests of men and women. Not surprisingly, given gender differences in arrest offenses, the data supports this. For instance, after Proposition 47 reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors in November 2014, the female arrest rate for drug offenses declined by 14% and the rate for property offenses fell by 22%, compared to 7% and 10% declines among men. Policymakers would do well to monitor arrest rates for men and women and keep them in mind when considering the impact of criminal justice reforms.

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