A Sensible Approach: Gender-Responsive Strategies for Female Offenders

At the Western Society of Criminology meetings criminologist Barbara Bloom of Sonoma State University presented the findings from her comprehensive study of women offenders. The research she and her colleagues conducted presents the most up-to-date information about women offenders and offers some very sensible strategies for dealing with this important issue.  My aim here is to present some of key findings of this research (the entire report can be seen at: http://www.nicic.org/Library/018017).


A Profile of Women in the Criminal Justice System           


More and more women are finding themselves in the clutches of the criminal justice system than ever before. The rates of arrest, conviction and imprisonment for women have increased far more than those for men during the past couple of decades, calling for some bold strategies to deal with the problem.  Driven largely by the drug war, the total number of women offenders somewhere within the criminal justice system grew by 81 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared to a more modest 45 percent growth for men.  Among those on probation, women offenders jumped by 76 percent compared to only 37 percent for males during this time.  Women in jail rose by 89 percent versus a 48 percent increase for men.  The most gains were seen for women prisoners and women on parole.  These increases were 108 and 105 percent respectively, compared with increases of 77 and 31 percent for men.  The incarceration rate for women is around 60 per 100,000.  Compare this rate to an average of around 8 per 100,000 between around 1920 and 1970!

            About 72 percent of the women in prison have at least one child under the age of 18. What is often overlooked is the fact that more than 1.3 million children now have a mother who is somewhere in the criminal justice system (and more with a father in prison). This is an important fact, as prior research has demonstrated that one of the strongest predictors of chronic delinquency is having one or more parents with an arrest record.  More will be said later about this issue. Not surprisingly, race is an important variable, as half of the women in prison are black and they are eight times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.  In contrast, around two-thirds of the women on probation are white.  Looking at women’s incarceration as a whole, fully two-thirds are either African-American or Hispanics.

            About 11 of every 1,000 women will be in prison at some point in their lives.  For minorities this ratio is even greater: 15 out of every 1,000 Hispanic women and 36 of every 1,000 African-American women will end up in prison at some point in their lives, compared with only 5 of every 1,000 white women.

            These women are not exactly violent predators.  The majority of women who are arrested are charged with a non-violent crime (they account for only about 17 percent of the arrests for all violent crimes; the most common is simple assault).  Almost three-fourths of the women arrested are charged with either larceny-theft or a drug offense.  Drug offenses constitute the largest source of the growth among women in prison.  Just over one-third (34%) of the women in state prisons are in for drug offenses; in federal prisons this percentage is an astounding 72 percent!  One study found that between 1986 and 1996 the number of women in prison for drug offenses soared by 888 percent!

            Moreover, women are far less likely than their male counterparts to have a lengthy prior record.   Moreover, their family backgrounds were quite dysfunctional, with the majority having only one parent in the household (normally the mother), while about half had at least one family member who had been incarcerated (compared to 37% of the men in prison).  Drugs and alcohol abuse were prevalent within their families and sexual and physical abuse was common; far more common than women in the general population. Further, most of these women witnessed violence in their families. A Bureau of Justice Statistic report found that among women on probation, 40 percent had experienced abuse, compared to only 9 percent of the males. On the whole, women prisoners are about three times more likely to have a history of abuse than men.  Moreover, while for men such abuse generally stops when they become adults, for women the abuse continues in their adult years (by the men in their lives).  Some more detailed studies have found that an even greater percentage of women have experienced abuse, such as more than 80 percent in a California study.

            Not surprisingly, substance abuse is common among these women, which is also linked to trauma and mental health issues.  Roughly a third of women in prison admitted committing a crime to support a drug habit, with half saying they used drugs daily.  Alcohol abuse is also common.  These percentages are greater than those for men.

            The physical health of these women is much worse than in the general population and more than male prisoners.  They are about three times more likely than men to go to sick call every day (20-35% vs. 7-10%). About five percent of the women are pregnant when they enter prison.  Sexually transmitted diseases are also a much greater problem for women than for men (women are 50% more likely than men to be HIV positive); since 1991 the number of women with HIV went up by 69 percent, compared to a 22 percent rise among men. 

            Mental health issues are more common among women than men.  Around one-fourth have been diagnosed with a mental illness; mostly depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.  Incidentally, PTSD is strongly related to sexual abuse and other kinds of trauma.  Just over one-fifth of women in jail have been diagnosed with PTSD; around one-fourth of women in prison are getting medication for various psychological disorders.  Most of these disorders, by the way, are strongly correlated with their experiences of abuse. Many times the failure to examine the backgrounds of these women results in tragedies, such as what recently occurred in a New York jail.  In this case a woman who was sent to jail had "a childhood of sexual abuse, a diagnosis of manic depression, a suicide attempt at age 13," which was noted when she arrived at Rikers Island more than two years ago (September 2002).  She was never seen by a psychiatrist nor by the the mental health specialist who was caring for her.  She was eventually placed by a social worker on suicide watch this past December.  The guard on duty did not know she was on suicide watch.  She was found hanging from bedsheets.[1]

            As already noted, the majority of these women have children and the most obvious question is: who is taking care of them?  More often than not, it is either grandparents or the state (e.g., foster care).  Visits with children while incarcerated are almost impossible, as so many prisons are now in rural areas far away from home, rendering travel extremely difficult.  An example is the case of women offenders in Hawaii.  Currently about 80 (roughly 10% of all women in prison in that state) are housed in a prison in tiny Brush, Colorado (pop. 5,000), a private prison operated by GRW Corp.

            Finally, while a slight majority of women in state prisons (56%) and 73 percent in federal prisons had a high school diploma, less than half were employed full time at the time of their most recent arrest (compared to almost 60% of the males).  Two-thirds of the women never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour.  Most who did work did so at traditional female occupations, like cosmetology, clerical work, and food service.


The Theme: Women are Different


            The above profile of women offenders is meant to convey the fact that because of their life experiences and their offenses history, they should receive different treatment than for men.  Unfortunately, all too often the prison system takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Most prison programs take a “gender-neutral” approach, which in reality means white males.  Various classification, screening and assessment schemes have not been validated for women and minorities.  Such schemes need to be geared toward women’s special needs. 

            A survey conducted by the National Institute of Corrections found the following specific areas where men and women prisoners needed to be treated differently: (1) pat-search and strip-search procedures; (2) commissary items, especially health and beauty items; (3) allowable personal property; (4) transportation and restraint policies for pregnant women.  In the past the needs of women offenders have been largely ignored when considering these and other policies. 

            Most staff members in women’s prisons do not get training specific to working with women offenders.  If they did, then they would quickly realize the importance of the above areas.  For instance, the traditional pat-search and strip-search procedures may produce much trauma for women, as it may open up old psychological wounds of victimization.  There is also a common perception that women offenders are more difficult to work with.  Women are often treated like their male counterparts, as if they are just as prone to violence, escape, etc.  Also, the norm of handcuffing at all times during transportation should be set aside when dealing with pregnant women – indeed, it is absurd to believe that a pregnant women needs to be restrained, as if she is going to try and escape!

            The needs of women offenders are far different than those for men, as they are far more likely to need substance abuse treatment, treatment for abuse, mental health needs, educational and vocational needs, and issues related to their children.  One key finding from this research is that there are all sorts of “collateral consequences” of imprisonment that are gendered.  For instance, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 mandates the termination of parental rights if a child does not have contact with their mother for 15 or more of the past 22 months.  Further, section 115 of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) stipulates that those convicted of a felony involving the possession or sale of drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps.  This effectively means that a disproportionate number of minority women and their children are consigned to a lifetime of poverty.  Additionally, most of those convicted of drug crimes are banned from federal housing assistance.  Finally, many women are prevented from receiving educational and vocational assistance while in prison, as such assistance is either absent or limited, while Pell grants for college education have been eliminated altogether.  It is almost as if policy makers want prisoners to fail upon release; which many in fact do, as suggested by the high recidivism rates.


Perspectives on Women in the CJ System


            The final section of this report covers the importance of examining the context of women’s lives and specifically their pathways into criminality.  The report emphasizes the fact there are several interrelated factors that affect women’s lives very differently than men’s lives.  Research shows that what separates women offenders from their male counterparts is that of triple jeopardy or the intersection of race, class, and gender.  Women involved in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly racial minorities (especially African-American) and poor.  Their poverty status is closely correlated with both race and gender.

            The report also covers some key theoretical issues concerning women and crime.  Traditional criminology has not only ignored women, until the past 25 years or so, but has failed to seriously consider class and race as they relate to gender.  Moreover, most theories of crime have tried to sort of “add women and stir,” as stated so well by Meda Chesney-Lind.[2]

            The pathways perspective helps shed much needed light on explaining women’s involvement in crime.  This perspective incorporates what Joanne Belknap has called a “whole life” perspective in the study of crime.[3] Her research, along with many others, has found that the following differentiate women from male offenders: (1) the role of violence, trauma and substance abuse; (2) patterns of offending and reoffending; (3) the impact of the responsibilities for children and the reduced ability to support themselves and their children; (4) race and ethnicity and how they correlate with crime, violent partners, and substance abuse; (5) the connections with violent and substance-abusing partners.[4]

            What the research tells us is that because of their gender, women stand a far greater chance than men to experience sexual abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence and are much more likely to have the sole responsibility of caring for children.  Also, histories of personal abuse, mental illness and substance abuse, economic marginality, homelessness and key relationship issues help determine women’s entry into the world of crime and the criminal justice system.


Implications for Social Policy and Criminal Justice


            The research collected for this report points the way toward important changes in how we handle female offending.  Policy-makers must take into consideration important childhood and adult events, such as family-related problems that often lead to running away at an early age and the trauma these have caused.  The authors of this report strongly recommend what they call “trauma-informed services” which would entail taking the trauma in women’s lives into account when creating criminal justice policies, avoiding triggering trauma reactions (e.g., strip searches), adjusting the behavior of counselors and other staff members and allowing the survivors to manage their trauma symptoms.  Also, a “theory of addiction” must be used in order to properly handle this issue.  This would entail using a holistic health model and focusing on the relational aspects of addictions.

            Finally, for practitioners, this report urges the use of six “guiding principles” for a “gendered responsive criminal justice system.”  These principles are as follows:


The report concludes that these principles should serve as a blueprint for the development of gender-responsive policies and can serve as a useful foundation.  However, “commitment and willingness on the part of policymakers and practitioners will be needed to actualize the vision and to implement the principles and strategies of a gender-responsive criminal justice system.  Reducing women’s involvement in the criminal justice system will benefit the women themselves, their communities, and society.  Such efforts will development a more effective criminal justice system and generate positive effects for generations to come.”


I would encourage readers to pursue this topic more fully by reading the full report.       


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[1] Von Zielbauer, Paul (2005). “In City's Jails, Missed Signals Open Way to Season of Suicides.” New York Times, February 28.

[2] See Chesney-Lind, Meda and Lisa Pasko (2004).  The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; see also, Chesney-Lind, Meda and Randall G. Shelden (2004).  Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice (3rd ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[3] Belknap, Joanne (2001).  Invisible Women: Gender, Crime and Justice.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth.

[4] Numerous references are cited in this report, too many to list here.  Aside from those already cited in notes 1 and 2 above, see Barbara Owen’s excellent study In the Mix (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998 and Kathleen Daly (1992).  “Women’s Pathways to Felony Court: Feminist Theories of Lawbreaking and Problems of Representation.”  Review of Law and Women’s Studies 2: 11-52.