Women behind bars much more common

{child_byline}By ANDY HOWELL

Assistant Managing Editor{/child_byline}

In the last week six people have been arrested in Pinal County on murder charges.

Three of them were women.

Two women were arrested in connection with a fatal stabbing near an Eloy truck stop last month in which they were allegedly part of a group of assailants.

Those charged with first-degree murder during the commission of a crime, armed robbery and aggravated robbery were Aubrey Hallberg, 26, and Cheryl Belver, 32. Eloy Police say they were part of a group that tried to rob a man who fought back, stabbing one of his attackers to death and wounding another, in this case both men.

Not sure if gender was a factor in who got stabbed.

Also, a 33-year-old woman was arrested after a fatal hit-and-run during an altercation last weekend in a Coolidge area subdivision.

Chanda Eckert was arrested for first-degree murder by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. Eckert is accused of killing 53-year-old Peggy O’Neil by running her over with a vehicle.

If you think you are seeing more and more women arrested for violent crimes, it’s not your imagination. And Pinal County is not unique in this trend.

A report from the Sentencing Project shows that between 1980 and 2016, the number of women incarcerated in American jails and prisons increased by more than 700%, from 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016.

Analyzing the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report found that while the number of men incarcerated still far exceeds the number of women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980.

Not sure what the trend is in Pinal County. Any request we make for information from the Sheriff’s Office is pretty much ignored. But anecdotally it does appear more and more women are showing up in the booking logs.

And there does seem to be a common factor — drugs.

The trend of more women behind bars is following the growth trend of opioid addiction in this country, and Pinal County is no exception.

Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug offense. However, the number being convicted of violent crimes is also increasing, and these too often have a connection to drug abuse, especially charges related to fatal DUI crashes.

Last month a Phoenix woman, who was out of jail on reduced bail while awaiting trial for murder in a fatal wrong-way DUI crash, was arrested and charged in a second DUI wreck.

While we have seen a jump in crimes being committed by women, we haven’t seen a corresponding increase in rehabilitation efforts targeting women.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that the progress that states have made in reducing prison populations since they peaked in 2009 has impacted men more than women. The total number of men incarcerated in state prisons fell more than 5% between 2009 and 2015, but the number of women in state prisons continued to increase.

Researchers have found that incarcerated women face different problems than men, which aren’t addressed in rehab programs. The same could be said for the increase in crimes they are committing.

Women are more likely to have a history of abuse, trauma and mental health problems when they commit crimes, but treatment is often inadequate or unavailable in prisons. The health systems in prison often fail to meet women’s unique physical health needs, including management of menopause, nutrition and substance abuse disorders.

Also, the study found that more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under age 18. Oftentimes they are the primary care givers for these children.

It is time law enforcement and corrections begin to address this growing need.

In Pinal County the crime rate overall has gone down, but so far there has been no apparent plan to address the growing crime rate among women.

There needs to be a two-pronged approach to the problem by looking at both how to stop the crimes women commit and how to get them the unique help at rehabilitation needed to make sure they don’t commit more.

In the past, women criminals were often influenced by the bad men in their lives. But that is not always the case anymore.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.

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