Ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8), Jesuit Social Services has released new analysis revealing Victoria’s female prison population has grown by an astonishing 70 per cent in the past six years.

“On a day where gender equality is on the global agenda, it is extremely disappointing to see Victoria is imprisoning more women than it ever has, and that imprisonment of women is growing at a faster rate than male imprisonment,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.

Analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the past decade shows that there were 238 women incarcerated in Victorian prisons in 2008, and that the population reached a record 406 people in 2014.

The number of female prisoners dropped between 2004 and 2008, while there has been an increase in each of the past six years.

Ms Edwards says one of the contributing factors behind the prison population growing every year under the previous state government was a series of failed ‘tough on crime’ policies.

“We saw no clear increase in crime rates over this period yet more and more women were imprisoned as a result of reforms to sentencing, bail and parole,” she says.

A 2004 study, Drugs and Crime: A Study of Incarcerated Female Offenders, showed that a staggering 87 per cent of female prisoners are victims of sexual, emotional or physical abuse before entering the Victorian criminal justice system.

“We also know through our hands-on work with women involved in the criminal justice system that many have experienced family violence, homelessness, mental illness or substance abuse. “

“Just $4.5 million of additional funds were allocated towards tackling family violence in last year’s state budget. We welcome the Royal Commission into Family Violence, but at the same time know only sustained investments into addressing this issue will lead to fewer women becoming victims. The more we can protect women from disadvantage, the more we can prevent them from offending themselves,” says Ms Edwards.

Jesuit Social Services has called for a range of changes to the system that would prevent women becoming stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system, including a reform of sentencing laws to ensure prison is always a last resort and greater investments into tackling the underlying disadvantage behind crime.

“Only then can we work to preventing women from offending in the first place, leading to better outcomes for those cycling in and out of prison and creating the safer communities we all want to live in,” says Ms Edwards.