Georgia has witnessed a similar climb. The state's female prison population grew by almost 20 percent over the last four years, after far outstripping the male prisoner growth rate throughout the 1990s.
Whatever happened to sugar and spice?
In the crime category, men remain the big victors in the battle of the sexes. About 14 times as many men -- or 1.4 million -- currently are serving time.
But I still find the trend profoundly disturbing -- and not out of some naive or sexist notion that women, being the "fairer sex," are programmed not to engage in aberrant behavior. As a former federal prosecutor in Georgia, I've seen plenty of criminality, and it's decidedly gender-neutral.
But new incarceration stats are troubling because they're a real-world consequence of what conservatives like me have been railing against for decades: the breakdown of the traditional family unit, and the consequent lack of moral guideposts for young Americans. The unprecedented increase in the number of women behind bars, both in this state and around the nation, is a direct result of the corrosion of traditional moral and community values that served in years past to provide some sort of safety net for America's youth.
Unfortunately, those basic concepts of right and wrong, amplified through both the church and the neighborhood, have been weakened by a materialistic, narcissistic, MTV-colored gloss on life. Reality TV come full circle.
There are plenty of specific theories to explain the rise in female incarceration. Many are a variation on the same theme: the loosening of traditional communal bonds and a consequently increased susceptibility for young women to engage in criminal behavior. Certainly much of the problem has to do with illicit narcotics, including the spillover effect from young men who get involved in drugs and then involve the women in their social group.
But we can't just blame bad male influences or the war on drugs for the astounding growth rate of the female prison population. A large part of the responsibility must be borne by the modern "equalization" of women in American society.
Now, before the letters start pouring in, I'm not arguing that women are entitled to less by way of social recognition or natural right than men. I'm simply making the point that one of the unintended consequences of the growing equality between the sexes is greater parity in the levels of anti-social behavior.
The rise in female incarceration, I would also argue, has to do with the breakdown of traditional, societal checks on behavior. Part of being a true, limited-government conservative is recognizing that human society and, especially, the free market possess elegant checks that provide stability and harmony -- all without any government interference. If families have to pay for goods, a breadwinner must get a job, which creates a certain stability. If there are economic consequences to being a single parent, women -- in particular -- will seek marriage before motherhood.
Unfortunately, the growth of the nanny state -- in which more reliance is placed on government taking care of problems than on personal and family responsibility -- has combined with narcissism and selfishness to dramatically erode these innate checks.
Now, the narcissism of the "me generation" has given way to an even more extreme glorification of boisterous, if not downright violent behavior, which only accelerates and broadens the process. It pops up in all forms of mass communication, from "The Osbournes" to shock jocks (and jockettes). The fact is that the vast pools of human depravity that invade and pervade modern entertainment and the mass media aren't helping matters. We've got movies, music, video games -- heck, we've got cartoons -- that glorify behavior that results in a one-way ticket to the slammer.
Liberals like to turn up their noses at conservatives -- with our insistence on the importance of morality and "family values." But their disdain overlooks the fact that family values actually are rather important. There really is something to be said for the trust, support, stability, love and, indeed, control that comes with having two parents, annoying siblings and a dog named Fido. Families provide space and freedom for kids to be kids, and to make mistakes -- and suffer consequences -- that don't land them in the hoosegow.
What we need is a behavior revolution. When I was growing up, we recognized that youthful rebellion, while understandable within bounds, didn't amount to some sort of social entitlement. We didn't have a free pass to drive dangerously, abuse various substances, act lasciviously, pepper one's speech with cuss words or walk around being proudly disrespectful. Parents need to impress on their kids -- especially their daughters -- the importance and the benefits of being a person who operates within personal and social boundaries.
Better they learn to walk inside those lines now than be forced to learn how to operate behind a wall of bars.
Bob Barr represented parts of Cobb County and northwest Georgia in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2003. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.