Janet T Davidson & Meda Chesney-Lind. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publication.
The study of the nature and extent of crime has largely been the study of the nature and extent of male crime. The results of largely male-based studies have been used to craft programs, interventions, and punishments that would be applied to all offenders. These male-based interventions have historically been merely used to respond to girls’ and women’s crime on the basis of the assumption that a one-size-fits-all model of crime, punishment, theory, and intervention works for both genders. Researchers in the 20th and 21st centuries, though, have challenged the notion that female offenders are the same as male offenders, that the two commit crimes for the same reasons and should be treated in exactly the same manner by the criminal justice system.
The subject of gender and crime is complex, multifaceted, and certainly worthy of serious scholarly attention. For the sake of cohesiveness and general education, this chapter focuses on women and crime; specifically, it outlines the historical lack of specific focus on female criminality and the complications this paucity of attention has thus created for female offenders. Attention is paid to important theoretical perspectives informing the field of gender and crime; female pathways to crime; recent trends in female criminality; and, finally, women’s experience of the criminal justice system, including important trends in the imprisonment of girls and women.
Male-Based Criminology and Explanations of Female Criminality
As this chapter is being written, we can say that a lot is known about the nature and extent of criminal offending. The earliest thinking about crime came from religious leaders and philosophers; often, these perspectives speculated on both the origins and morality of criminal acts as well as the proper sort of responses to these offenses. The first true empirical studies of criminal offending were conducted by Cesare Lombroso, who believed that there was an important link between biological factors and crime causation. In other words, it was believed that certain offenders were born criminal and could be identified by certain biological defects, such as high cheekbones, baldness, and shifty eyes. Scholarship on the nature and extent of crime has moved far beyond these appearance-based biological factors. Contemporary thinking about crime causation is much more complex and often involves a mix of sociological or psychological factors.
Regardless of the scope of the theoretical perspective taken or the variables included, criminology has historically been a field dominated by male scholars seeking to explain the criminality of other men. Girls and women who committed crimes were for too long the forgotten offenders. Indeed, the term the invisible offender is often used by feminist scholars to describe the lack of scholarship on and knowledge of female offenders. Women were either eliminated from samples or data on them were excluded from analyses seeking to explain crime or understand the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The result of this andocentric focus is that theories of crime and justice were really theories of male crime and justice. The specific focus on female offenders began in the 1970s largely because of the work of feminist scholars. Indeed, the number of scholars labeled feminist criminologists has continuously increased during this time span and has resulted in a widening of the research agenda for scholars exploring the topic of gender and crime. Prior to this era, research on girls or women and crime tended to be haunted by stereotypes about “evil” and “bad” women, and the work focused almost exclusively on prostitution. Feminist scholars, by contrast, began to explore whether girls and women committed crime for different reasons than boys and men; they also focused on a wider range of offenses. Thus, part of feminist scholarship in this area was and is to question criminological knowledge that was male based and male informed as well as to build a new criminology with female offenders squarely as the center of inquiry. Feminist scholars also began an exploration of girls’ and women’s experiences in the criminal justice system, most specifically, the experience of women in prison.
From the beginning, feminist criminologists addressed the paucity of research and theory regarding female offending. They also called attention to the fact that men, too, have a gender, and thus they propelled a new line of research—masculinities research, which explores the role played by masculine expectations in certain forms of male crime. Although the term feminism often evokes negative connotations in the lay population, feminist scholarship in criminology foregrounds gender; that is, feminist criminologists do not assume that the factors that are significant in explaining male criminal behavior will necessarily also predict female crime. Feminist scholarship also assumes that gender is constructed and is shaped by history, culture, and the sociopolitical climate. One’s gender often enhances or limits opportunities and social participation in very important ways, and these systems of male privilege and the ways in which they interface with the policing of women are also important to feminist criminologists.
Some of the more salient aspects of gender, relative to crime and the criminal justice system, highlighted by feminist research include the notion that girls and women in the criminal justice system are more likely than boys to have histories of sexual and physical victimization; that women in the criminal justice system are frequently sole caregivers of dependent children; and, finally, that the abuse that characterized their childhoods continues on into adulthood. Along with these differences, criminalized girls and women share with their male counterparts certain attributes: Girls and women who commit crimes are likely to come from economically marginalized communities, many have very spotty employment histories, and many of the girls and women in prison are members of racial minority groups. Important as these insights are, there is no single feminist approach; instead, feminist criminology, as a part of feminist theory, has been informed by a variety of feminist perspectives.
Some scholars have approached the study of girls, women, and crime from the liberal feminist perspective. This perspective views the disadvantage, as well as other social problems, faced by women as a direct result of a society that views women as unequal to men and believes that, if discrimination against women is the problem, then laws mandating equal treatment on the basis of sex are the solution. Scholars adopting this tradition often point to the myriad examples of women and men being treated in unequal ways by the criminal justice system, such as the failure to allow women on juries until the middle of the 20th century and the difficulties that women experienced getting admitted to law schools during most of the 20th century. Advocates of the liberal view use education, integration, and litigation to address gender inequality.
Radical feminists see an existing social system, especially one rooted in patriarchy (institutional arrangements that enforce male privilege), as crucial to understanding women’s status (and women’s crime). Radical feminists thus move beyond simply using the social structure as an explanatory framework and directly challenge the existing system as one way to equalize men’s and women’s power and status within society and thus elevate the overall status of all women. Scholars adopting this perspective have been responsible for informing the nature and extent of female victimization (in particular, wife battery and sexual assault) at the hands of males, often in intimate and power imbalanced relationships.
Marxist scholars view capitalistic systems as particularly problematic for societies in general. The unequal class relations, whereby individuals in the upper classes have the power to control those in the lower classes (e.g., through wages and access to lawmaking and other power establishments), prove problematic in myriad ways for people without power. Clearly, this perspective focuses on the crimes of the powerful, which are often not prosecuted, while the crimes of the powerless are hyped and heavily policed. In line with this view, Marxist feminists observe capitalism as the most important social structure, one that places women at a societal disadvantage over men because they are even more economically marginalized than their male counterparts.
Socialist feminists point out that two of the most important social structural conditions, capitalism and patriarchy, place women at disadvantage. Thus, these scholars tend to take a more holistic view of how women are situated in society in terms of power and status. At an aggregate level, women in general occupy lower power and status relative to men; thus, socialist feminists see the disadvantages faced by women as a direct result of this placement. From this perspective, society would need to be completely restructured away from both capitalism and patriarchy to alleviate both gender and class inequities.
Third-wave feminists focus on how gender, race, and class intersect to put some women at greater disadvantage than others. For many feminist scholars this perspective marked an important improvement over others, because the prior implication had been that all women were situated equally within society. Third-wave feminists, however, have made the important point that salient distinctions should be noted in class and ethnic differences. In other words, although women, relative to men, are placed at a disadvantage, not all women are equally placed and valued within society. Gender certainly has a significant impact on a person’s placement within the social, class, and power systems of a society, but so do race, ethnicity, and class.
It is important to note that the study of masculinities also emerged as feminists focused on the role that gender plays in crime causation. Through the study of gender, crime, and victimization, feminist scholars refocused attention on male offenders and the role played by male gender expectations in crime. Again, much of criminological thought has taken for granted that criminal behavior is simply male criminal behavior. Few ever questioned how specifically male or female socialization lead to participation in crime and violence. Again, it is important to note that although there is no one feminist theory, all of these feminist-based theories have gender, typically the female gender, as the overriding concern central to their scholarly inquiry. Within criminology and criminal justice, these feminist theories specifically consider the disadvantages that girls and women face in society and how these relate to victimization and to criminal careers. Finally, these theoretical perspectives often offer suggestions to improve the plight of girls and women in society so as to reduce their need to engage in criminal conduct.
Drawing from these and other important feminist perspectives, gender-specific explanations of female criminality include both theoretical frameworks within which to understand offending behavior as well as ideas for change that stem from these perspectives. Feminist criminologists have remained concerned with questions of whether, in fact, male-based theories of crime apply to explanations of female criminality; why gender matters so much in official measures of crime; why women are victimized at much higher rates than men; how and whether women are treated differently within the criminal justice system; and why women appear over-and underrepresented relative to men in certain crimes. This is certainly not an exclusive list, but it creates a streamlined method of summarizing the primary concerns of the majority of feminist criminological work to date.
The feminist focus on women arguably began with a focus on women’s victimization in a largely patriarchal system. The focus on female victimization inevitably led to the discovery of an important link between girls’ and women’s victimization and their later histories of offending. Furthermore, this focused inquiry on female offending highlighted the lack of muchneeded scholarly attention to women’s crime. Specifically, feminists have been concerned with how a gender-based social structure (i.e., one dominated by patriarchy) has influenced women’s social participation in ways that disadvantage them. In this realm, gender is accepted as something socially constructed and different than biological sex. Gender—masculinity or femininity—is imbued with deeply embedded social meanings and expectations.
Indeed, it is important to note that feminist scholarship, regardless of its form, has helped transcend the dichotomy between crime as male and victimization as female. Indeed, feminist scholarship has refocused attention on men and crime and what “doing gender” means for both. Unfortunately, the lack of research and other scholarly attention to women’s crime has yielded consequences. First, scholars, instead of attempting to understand why women commit crime, have labeled women “bad” if they committed crime. Women have historically and unquestionably been treated in overly controlling ways, especially in patriarchal systems that value “good” women, that is, those who are largely subservient to men and to male-created institutions. Second, policies, practices, and programs designed for male offenders have been applied to female offenders in largely unacknowledged ways. The number of women as arrestees and as members of correctional populations has gone largely unnoticed or studied, even when their numbers have grown at rates faster than men. Contemporary scholarship has moved beyond the invisibility of female offenders, though. The rest of this chapter outlines what we know about women’s pathways into crime; their patterns of victimization; the nature and extent of female offending; and their participation in the criminal justice system, including their experiences in jail and prison.
Pathways and Women’s Crime
For many people, the pathway to crime is complicated, and for women this picture is no different. Women do tend to have patterns in common with men, but there is now a wealth of documented gender-specific factors related to women’s participation in crime and in the criminal justice system. Feminist scholarship has, again, helped detail how women’s roles in society have traditionally been ignored within the criminal justice system and has helped provide explanations of female offending. Current research documents how the complexity and the context of the female life is often the root of her involvement in offending and in the criminal justice system. In short, women have significantly greater histories of trauma, addiction, relationship difficulties, abuse, and economic marginalization than their male counterparts. A type of life course perspective, called the pathways perspective, currently exhibits the best method of understanding women’s involvement in offending and in the criminal justice system.
Girls and women suffer rates of victimization and abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional) at much higher levels that their male counterparts. The most recent survey of national correctional populations (including inmates and probationers), for example, demonstrated that well over half of the female jail inmates had ever been physically or sexually abused, compared with fewer than 1 in 5 of the male inmates. Furthermore, females’ abuse occurs at disproportionate rates both before and after they enter legal adulthood; in other words, females are more likely to suffer serious abuse as both girls and as women. Existing research supports a link between child and adult victimization and female criminality, and women in the criminal justice system have higher levels of abuse than the general female population. Trauma theorists assert that these past abusive events are often cumulative and result in trauma that is rarely treated in any professional manner. Thus, women adapt to the trauma in ways that are deemed criminal, especially through the use of drugs and other substances and crimes designed to support these addictions.
Women are more likely than men, at an aggregate level, to be incarcerated or otherwise under correctional supervision for drug and property offenses. Another national survey of incarcerated individuals demonstrated that, in 2006, for women, 28.7% were sentenced for a drug offense and 30.9% were sentenced for a property offense, compared with corresponding rates of 18.9% and 20.1% for men. Female offender involvement with drugs and other substances is multifaceted, and property crimes are often drug related. Existing research demonstrates that factors such as trauma, abuse, women’s subservient roles in society, health problems, poor self-image and self-efficacy, and relationship difficulties are often directly related to substance use and related to female offending. Addiction theorists posit that we could indeed reduce levels of female offending if we addressed the gender-specific factors that lead to addiction and drug-related crimes.
Other scholars have focused on differences in female specific relationships and the interaction with individual and social development. Because of differential socialization processes, girls mature into adulthood differently than do boys, and they do so in ways that place them in relatively vulnerable and disadvantageous positions. The prevalent histories of abuse for girls leave them vulnerable to lower levels of self-worth and empowerment and a diminished ability to have meaningful relationships. The role a patriarchal system has in socializing female expectations and responsibilities is beneficial to understanding the gender-specific strains that leave girls and women susceptible to crime and substance use. Furthermore, women are more likely to be raising dependent children alone than are men, and this, coupled with their own difficulties with relationships, can often create a cycle of dysfunction.
The pathways perspective is a particularly robust theoretical explanation for female involvement in crime. This theoretical perspective takes a more holistic stance toward women’s involvement in crime by incorporating all of the gender-related risk factors thought to contribute to female criminality. When the context of female social participation is placed squarely in the context of a patriarchal society, one that limits female participation in meaningful ways and labels females “bad” when they do not follow genderrelated rules, the transparency of their life problems and the intersection with crime is noticeable.
A pathways, or life trajectories, perspective informs us that girls and women in the criminal justice system suffer higher rates of victimization than boys and men in their families of origin and within their intimate relationships. They are more likely than men to self-medicate with both legal and illegal substances, to have fragmented family histories, to suffer from physical and/or mental health problems, to be unmarried mothers with minor children, and to have limited vocational skills and sporadic work histories. These factors, singularly or, more often, simultaneously, come together in ways that positively affect women’s offending and involvement with the criminal justice system.
These factors increase the likelihood of offending and other criminal justice involvement for women, especially for women of color and those with lower socioeconomic status. The socialization of girls and women shapes the available opportunities (perceived or otherwise) for women who find themselves on the fringes of society. These limited choices often lead females, first as girls and later as women, into homelessness, substance use, survival crimes (often as prostitutes or in the sex industry), unhealthy and often abusive relationships, and more serious criminal offenses.
Gender operates in very powerful yet often-unnoticed ways. Girls’ and women’s lives are limited and shaped by circumstances that devalue them relative to their male counterparts. Although we are more aware of some of these outcomes, such as lower pay for similar work, the manner in which girls and women enter the criminal justice system has remained unfortunately invisible for too long. Note that we are not claiming that feminist scholars do not wish to imply that the prevalent histories of abuse and vulnerable positions within patriarchal societies leaves women without any sense of agency; instead, the point is that females who find themselves represented as offenders and other criminal justice participants are more likely than others in the general population to exhibit the factors mentioned in this section.
The Nature and Extent of Women’s Crime
One of the best predictors of crime, especially violent crime, is gender. Males are responsible for a disproportionate amount of reported crime. For example, in 2006, males made up 82.8% of the individuals arrested for violent crimes (murder, aggravated rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) and 68.8% of the individuals arrested for property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny theft). Women, however, made up 64.2% of the prostitution and commercialized vice arrests, and girls represented over half of all runaway arrests (refer back to the “Pathways and Women’s Crime” section for explanations of the higher representation of females in these areas).
Although females represent roughly one quarter of all official arrests, their participation in the criminal justice system has grown at a rate faster than men’s. There is no dispute that the overall percentage of arrests accounted for by women has increased. More disputable, though, is what these numbers really mean. It might be that women are indeed committing more crime now than they were even 30 years ago. The recent literature suggests that it is more likely, though, that the level of criminality has not significantly risen but that attention to female behavior has increased, particularly in the area of assault.
Violent crime has historically and consistently remained a largely male phenomenon. This is true despite contemporary media efforts to depict ever-increasing levels of female violence and “bad” girls. Indeed, the percentage of females arrested for homicides has significantly decreased over the past 40 years. Female arrests have increased significantly for property crimes, especially larceny and fraud, as well as for drug offenses. Both of these changes in female criminality are likely a result not only of some increased offending but also of increased attention to these behaviors by law enforcement, at local and federal levels.
As discussed earlier, the women who most often become involved in crime and end up in the criminal justice system tend to be economically marginalized and have a lack of educational and/or vocational opportunities. Women’s economic status, coupled with their more extensive histories of abuse, make it understandable that the crimes they tend to commit more often, or in which they are otherwise overrepresented, are ones that could be considered “survival crimes.” For example, property crimes such as larceny or theft; fraud forgery; and sex crimes, such as prostitution, are viable methods of survival for women on the economic margins. If there is an average female offender, she is young, a single mother, and a woman of color; is undereducated and not well skilled; and has a history of abuse. These factors shape the nature and extent of crime for women as compared with men.
In any discussion of women’s criminality it is crucial to understand women’s involvement in drug use. As mentioned earlier, women are more likely to turn to substances, both legal and illegal, as a means of self-medication for untreated emotional trauma, often related to histories of abuse. This has become even more problematic for women as the United States has been imposing tougher sanctions for illegal drug use. As the following sections highlight, women’s faster rate of prison growth is largely attributable to mandatory drug sentencing laws.
It is increasingly difficult and indefensible to render girls and women invisible given their increased participation in the criminal justice system over the past few decades. Their increased presence in official arrest and conviction records also has implications for the manner in which they should be processed through the criminal justice system and otherwise treated and supervised within the community. The next two sections deal with these important issues.
Women and Equity in the System
The issue of gender equity in the criminal justice system is one that has remained contentious. As stated earlier, the criminal justice system has largely been defined and built around what we know about male offending and has merely been applied to women. Many consider this to be equitable treatment. However, given what is known about female pathways to offending, the “add gender and stir” approach to criminal justice policy is not equitable. Laws, policies, punishment, and programs have mainly been developed with males in mind and are assumed to be good enough for females.
The current manner in which women enter and are treated in the system often leaves them disadvantaged relative to their male counterparts. Equitable treatment for a female offender would likely involve considering her gender-specific needs and crafting a system that would specifically target these areas. These gender-specific factors rarely enter into discussions of criminal or penal policy; thus, the possible negative impact on female offenders is not discussed or analyzed ahead of time.
Women are affected at many different stages in the system. For example, at the time of arrest, women are less likely to be able to post bail, because they typically do not have the same economic resources as male offenders. Women are more likely to be addicted to drugs or using drugs to selfmedicate and are thus at greater risk of exposure to mandatory minimum prison sentences. In terms of classification schedules, female offenders tend to be overclassified in security risk levels relative to their male counterparts.
Because women, compared with men, are more likely to have been the primary caregivers of their dependent children, they are also more likely to be affected by the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which allows for the termination of parental rights if the parent has been consecutively without his or her child for 15 months. Because the average sentence for females is currently greater than 15 months, they are at greater risk than males (who are much less likely to have remained the caregiver of the dependent child) to permanently lose custody of their children.
Supervision strategies in prison and for probation and parole have been crafted with the male offender in mind. Equitable treatment for women would include supervision strategies designed for female offenders and would be cognizant of the histories of abuse that the majority of women in the system demonstrate. Furthermore, the competing demands of many female offenders in the community (child care, lower vocational skills and pay, familial responsibilities) often translate into a need for greater support if the goal is to improve success while under community supervision.
Many scholars argue that the current criminal justice laws, from which other criminal justice processes certainly flow, involve gender discrimination, even though they appear gender neutral on their face. However, laws may be differentially applied to males and females, or they may punish male victimizers more than female victimizers (e.g., aggravated assaults vs. assaults related to domestic violence). Some laws, such as mandatory arrest in domestic violence cases, have actually created more difficulty for female victims than was intended.
Some scholars have argued that women are in fact treated in a chivalrous fashion and are given lighter punishment than men or that women are treated more harshly than men because they appear to be nonnormative, or they are “evil.” Neither the chivalry nor the evil-woman hypothesis is fully supported by the research. Although there is some evidence for both of these, the weight of the evidence indicates that criminal justice decision makers, from law enforcement through corrections, tend to consider different factors when considering how to treat males versus females.
Regardless, when it comes to differential treatment, the problem is one of translation, or lack thereof. Rarely is the growing and emerging research on female offenders used in meaningful discussions of criminal justice treatment. The existing research clearly demonstrates meaningful qualitative differences in the nature and extent of female offending. Females are represented in certain offender groups more than men and, in the main, commit crimes for different reasons than men (e.g., the pathways perspective). Thus, the contemporary challenge to the system is to find a way to use existing research and knowledge to inform equitable treatment. The corresponding challenge is to also educate policymakers of the difference between equitable and exactly the same—the two are not synonymous. Many see “equal under the law” as meaning “to be treated exactly the same”; however, applying policies made for men in exactly the same way to women does not constitute equitable treatment.
Females represent the fastest-growing incarcerated population, with a rate faster than that of their male counterparts. This needs special attention because, even with a greater rate of growth, this is an area in which female offenders have perhaps remained the most invisible. Despite the greater rate of growth, there are still fewer female inmates than men; they are often incarcerated for less serious offenses; and they are rarely associated with violence in prison, rioting, or other assaultive behavior. There are, however, important gender-specific issues that female offenders face while in prison.
In early jails and prisons, female, male, and youthful offenders were placed in the same institutions without regard to safety, exploitation, or other issues of vulnerability. As the theory of penology changed, so did the manner in which individuals were incarcerated. By the early 20th century, most jails and prisons segregated males and females, either in separate institutions or separate within the same institution. These earlier separate, and seemingly equal, institutions were in fact equal only at face value. The earliest facilities for women were designed to rehabilitate the offenders such that they would conform to gender-related societal standards. In other words, women were taught how to be better cooks and better cleaners, and to perform other traditionally femaleoriented roles so that they could be “better” daughters or wives. Because the purpose of their incarceration was rehabilitation, their sentences were typically indeterminate, meaning that they did not serve a fixed amount of time (although there was typically a maximum sentence to be served). These female inmates would be released when they were deemed rehabilitated. During this same time frame, though, men were sent to prison primarily for punishment and were released on the basis of a fixed sentence. The result of these different systems was that women often served more time than men for similar offenses.
In the 21st century, punishment remains the primary goal of incarceration for both males and females. Therefore, it would seem that the nature of the incarceration would be the same for both, yet this is not the case. As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most troubling difference is that the rate of incarceration for females has continuously outpaced that for men for the past decade. It is important to note that the “get tough” and harsh crime control policies of the late 20th century have seemingly had the greatest impact on female offenders. The biggest policy area that affects female offenders, though, has been that associated with the war on drugs.
The earlier discussion of female offender pathways highlighted the reasons why many women become involved with illegal drugs or develop substance abuse problems. The underlying addictions and associated criminal behavior, for many women, are symptomatic of their troubled lives and untreated trauma and other mental health issues; as a result, comorbidity (i.e., having more than one problem) is a significant problem in women’s prisons. The war on drugs, with a heavy reliance on incarceration as a solution, has been the most prevalent form of “treatment” many female offenders have received.
Unfortunately, prison has not proven an effective place in which to treat the very complex issue of drug addiction, especially for a population of women who are likely unor underemployed, undereducated, economically marginalized, and who have untreated physical or mental health problems and are responsible for the care of young children. Many scholars, feminist or otherwise, believe that the problems of addicted individuals could be better served in the community with social-service-based help.
It should also be noted that over two thirds of women are responsible for caring for their dependent children prior to incarceration, compared with less than half of men. Furthermore, if a mother goes to prison, her children are more likely to be cared for by a relative, friend, or someone other than the child’s father; however, when a father is incarcerated, his children are likely to be cared for by the mother. Thus, incarceration policies that disproportionately affect female offenders have often been thought to have collateral consequences for the children left behind. Because there are fewer female inmates, nationally, than male inmates, there are also fewer female facilities. Facilities for females, and for many men, are often located at distances too far away from families to allow for visits. These women tend to come from economically marginalized families who cannot afford visits far from home, so many children will not see their mother while she is incarcerated. This is an unfortunate situation, because research has demonstrated that increased family visits and support reduce the likelihood of recidivism and overall success in the community.
The nature of female incarceration has received much less attention than male incarceration. The number of female inmates, relative to males, is often referenced as the reason for the lack of research attention; however, the current literature suggests some important distinctions in what it means to do time in a female institution compared with a male facility. Sexual assault of inmates by inmates is much more prevalent in male facilities. The culture in a female facility, though, is more likely to involve consensual sex and to sometimes be part of pseudofamilies developed in prison. When sexual abuse does occur in a prison facility, it is likely to occur at the hands of staff. These abuses often go unreported or are not investigated. There is not an adequate infrastructure in place to deal with these types of institutional-based abuse. Only recently have states begun to criminalize sexual abuse of female inmates by staff, recognizing that females are in vulnerable positions relative to the status and power of prison staff and are never in a position to have consensual sexual relationships with staff.
Women in prison, similar to women in society at large, are overly controlled. Relative to male inmates, females tend to receive more write-ups and misconduct violations. However, the nature of write-ups and misconduct reports are for minor violations of institutional rules (e.g., not following orders, being insubordinate) instead of violence within the institution. Although the nature of the prison environment for women is much less violent than it is for men, female inmates are nonetheless considered a more difficult population to work with. Correctional staff often cite female offenders’ reluctance to follow orders without question as one of the main reasons for this difficulty, as well as women’s greater emotional needs.
Women do have greater untreated mental health, and often physical health, needs compared with male offenders. This is often due to women’s greater histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and related untreated trauma. Female inmates are significantly more likely than male inmates to have suffered abuse as both children and as adults. The physical and mental health care of incarcerated females are often inadequate for their needs.
The smaller number of female inmates has also contributed to a shortage of research, attention, and money applied toward women’s in-prison programming. Mental and physical health in prison was mentioned earlier, and women’s vocational and educational programming, relative to male inmates’, also has remained inadequate. There are not enough existing programs to teach women vocational skills that will help them earn a living wage on their release from prison. These types of programs are much more likely to be found in male facilities.
An important consequence of fewer female inmates is that there are fewer female facilities. Not only are these facilities located long distances from the female offenders’ homes, but also there are rarely separate facilities for females based on risk level. Although most female offenders represent a low risk to institutional security, the ability to segregate female offenders by low, medium, and high risk is often missing. All female offenders serve time in the same facility, regardless of classification level.
Women as Victims
The connection between a girl’s or woman’s victimization and her offending is a complex yet important one for scholars of gender and crime to understand. Many women are neither simply victims nor simply offenders; they are often both. In fact, many women were victims long before they ever became offenders. Gender-focused research has highlighted female offenders’ roles as victims. It is not uncommon for women to have been victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, often at the hands of family members or loved ones.
Girls often exhibit the first signs of attempting to survive abuse at home by engaging in “survival crimes,” namely, running away and engaging in sex work. These two behaviors, the first of which is considered a status offense for juveniles, offer viable means of escape from abusive homes. Often, girls do not see any other options available to them. Life on the street for young girls can be dangerous and may in fact lead to other means of survival, especially those related to drugs and drug use.
Although males are most certainly abused in the same ways as females, they are not abused at the same levels, and their abuse tends to end as they enter their teens (because they can fight back). Furthermore, much of the victimization of females is a result of male violence. In adulthood, this victimization may also expand into the economic realm, creating situations that trap women in abusive relationships. The situation is compounded for women who have children, because they often are not in a position to adequately provide economic support for the children on their own. Unfortunately, this lack of economic power as an individual or within a household equates to less power and a lower likelihood of feeling safety in leaving an abusive relationship.
Regardless of the specific situation, women are often held in positions that are deemed secondary to men and that contain less power. This leaves girls and women vulnerable to violence in various forms. Men commit violence against women that serves to humiliate, dominate, and oppress as part of a patriarchal system that values men over women in most situations. When women do commit violence against men, it is often done in self-defense after a long period in a violent situation.
Feminist scholars have noted that it is more than a coincidence that much of the violence perpetrated against women has been done at the hands of males, often males known to the victim. This is true in all types of victimization. The majority of female rape and sexual assault victims know their assailants. Women who are already involved in physically abusive relationships are also more likely to become victims of sexual assault. Similar patterns are observed when we look at victims of physical abuse as well—most women know their assailants. Furthermore, it is statistically rare for mass-killing victims to be male; indeed, most serial killers are males, and most of their victims are females.
Why are women more likely than men to be victims of intimate violence? The best answer seems to be that male expression of violence is a way to exhibit control and power over women, either subconsciously or otherwise. It was, for a time, the nature of rape laws that only females were specified as victims and, even earlier, rape laws were in place mainly because women were considered property of men. Punishment was not for the benefit of the woman herself but to provide justice to the person who “owned” her. Society has continuously given off similar, albeit more subtle, messages. More contemporary messages center on women as in need of control by and protection from men. This is but one way women are placed in disadvantaged positions that make them more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of men.
It matters that women are often abused by men they know. First, women who are exposed to abuse from those who are supposed to care for them have greater difficulty forming healthy relationships. Second, when the victim of physical abuse or a sexual assault knows the assailant or is socially close to the assailant, the likelihood of prosecution decreases. In other words, the closer the social relationship, the less likely it is that the assailant will face any punishment. This perpetuates a societal structure and sends a message to men that women are “safe” targets for victimization.
Violence against women—sexual, physical, or otherwise—is not simply an individual problem. This is one of the most important messages of feminist scholarship. The patriarchal structure that allows so much victimization, often without any recourse for women, is a social as well as an individual problem. Until there is a significant change in the way that women are valued within society, it is likely that they will continue to experience higher rates of victimization, which increases the odds of their substance abuse, offending, and official criminal justice participation.
Scholars in the area of criminology should continue to think of gender not as just another variable but a matter worthy of specific focus and theorizing, especially with regard to female offending. More needs to be discovered not only about how women’s unique pathways affect offending but also how this knowledge can be used to better the lives of the increasing numbers of girls and women who find themselves in the criminal justice system. In particular, much more work needs to be accomplished to help us understand how women’s pathways to offending might best be addressed so that their levels of offending, recidivism or reoffending, and rates of incarceration can be reduced.
Research into effective treatment and supervision for female offenders should be expanded. Best practices are currently the standard in policy-based applications in this field yet, in the 21st century, the majority of standards or evidence-based policy is still based on research conducted largely with only males or male offenders. The relevance of gender in the criminal justice system cannot be overstated; it warrants greater attention to and movement away from the historical invisibility often afforded the female offender and toward more gender-informed policies and practices.