PORTLAND (AP) – Some state and county jails are scrambling to find room to house women as their numbers rapidly increase, taxing the limited facilities and programs designed for them.

The number of women held in state prison and some county jails in Maine has doubled in the past two years, part of a national trend.

Women still represent a small fraction of the total jail and prison population, but the number of women in custody is growing at a much faster rate than the percentage of increase in male prisoners.

The increase indicates judges are less inclined to go easy on female offenders than in the past, and also reflects an increase in drug-related crime such as theft and burglary, authorities say.

The trend has implications for how jails and prisons are run but also has social consequences.

Many female offenders are the primary caregivers for children, and often don’t have a support network that can care for the children while the parent is in custody. The Department of Human Services can end up taking responsibility for the children, sometimes for good.

The number of female jail inmates nationally grew 89 percent from 1990 to 2000, compared to just 48 percent growth in the male jail population, according to the national Bureau of Justice Statistics.

However, the actual number of women inmates increased just 33,216 compared to 177,299 for men. There were 70,414 women in jail in 2000 compared to 543,120 men.

Maine has almost 2,000 state prisoners total, with women representing just 5 percent of that. But the numbers are growing.

The Maine Department of Corrections had 57 women in custody in 2001 when it began construction of a new 70-bed women’s unit at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The state projected it would not reach 70 female prisoners until 2010, but the new unit was full when it opened last summer.

Now the state has 108 female prisoners.

“The more people you put in a facility, the more resources go into keeping people safe, then the fewer resources that can go into reducing the risk people present when they get back into the community,” said Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

There is no single reason why the number of women headed to prison has grown, she says, though some contributing factors stand out.

Many of the women sentenced to prison have received relatively short sentences, suggesting that judges are reluctant to send women to county jails that may lack programming or even space for females, Lord says.

Typically, people go to jail for sentences of less than one year, to prison for sentences of more than a year.

Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood says his officers have seen an increase in the number of women involved in burglaries, car burglaries and thefts as well as passing fake prescriptions.

AP-ES-07-07-03 0215EDT

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