Snapshots: holistic images of female offenders in the criminal justice system.

Author:Ward, Jennifer


Currently, the number of female offenders continues to increase while the overall crime rate drops. (1) Unfortunately, the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not clarify the reasons underlying this trend. (2) Yet this trend is not new. Between 1960 and 1974, the number of arrests for women increased by 108 percent, with a corresponding increase of only twenty-three percent for men. (3)

Since the mid-1970s, the dramatic upswing in the number of female offenders has caused a wide variety of scholars and commentators to attempt to explain these increases. (4) In comparison to male offenders, relatively few studies have been conducted regarding female offenders. Additionally, the study of the relationship between race and criminal justice has produced a solid field of research for African-Americans, (5) while studies concerning Latina (6) and Native American women (7) are less numerous; nevertheless, these studies have been and will continue to be explored. Furthermore, considerations of class within the criminal justice system have also received some study. (8)

A majority of these studies fail to address the reality that female offenders processed through the American criminal justice system are women with a distinct racial and economic status. The impact of race and class must be accounted for in studies on female offenders to make such fractured images whole. (9) Without an understanding of the correlation between these factors in the justice system, it becomes harder to address the issue of increased female offending in a productive manner. (10) If programs and policies aimed at decreasing the number of women in the criminal justice system are going to work, they will need to account for the differences among female offenders. (11)

This Essay attempts to pull together the various threads of thought regarding the relationships between gender, race, and class within the justice system, and suggests possible patterns that could be used to create holistic images of female offenders. Hopefully, a clearer understanding will foster more effective programs or policies to lower the number of women processed through the criminal justice system. Part I provides a brief overview of the various explanations used over time to account for criminal behavior by women. Part II details the ways in which gender can affect the processes of the criminal justice system. Part III discusses the impact that race can have on the female offender's experience in the system. Part IV briefly overviews the types of influences that class status produces. Part V concludes that while some research has been done combining these factors, additional research, using all of these factors, is required in order to achieve a more accurate picture of female offenders in America.


    Theories regarding the causes of female offending have varied greatly over time. Yet, even with these temporal differences, the majority of these theories can usually be grouped into one of three categories--biological, psychological, or socioeconomic theories. (12) Nonetheless, far from being distinctly separate categories, these three theories often overlap.

    Attempts to explain criminal behavior by women began as early as the turn of twentieth century. (13) The first scientific study of female offenders came in 1894, with the publication of The Female Offender. (14) In this study, the authors, Caesar Lombroso and William Ferrero, examined both the skeletal remains of female offenders and the bodies of living female prisoners. (15) Lombroso and Ferrero concluded that the number and types of physical abnormalities in female offenders indicated the extent to which women were predisposed to criminal acts; the authors even attempted to determine which particular criminal acts women were more likely to commit. (16) Due to its methodological deficiencies, (17) however, this study was quickly rejected. (18) Nevertheless, attempts to correlate female criminality with biological factors have continued into the present. (19)

    Psychological theories began appearing soon after early biological theories, and often relied on biological assumptions regarding women. The work of W.I. Thomas was considered a "departure from biological Social-Darwinian theories to complex analyses of the interaction between society and the individual." (20) Yet, at the same time, Thomas used biological differences as the basis for his work. (21) Additionally, Thomas characterized female criminal behavior as a "normal" response to specific social conditions, and believed that such behavior could be controlled by changing the woman's attitude towards those specific social conditions or by imposing "beneficial" conditions. (22)

    Freud's analysis of female offenders assumed the existence of biological inferiority in women. (23) Freud connected a woman's lack of male genitalia with her inability to resolve her Oedipal complex. (24) He argued that this unresolved conflict led to an inability of women to control their impulses, therefore making women more likely to commit criminal acts. (25) Under Freud's framework, deviant acts, criminal or otherwise, were part of a woman's frustration with her gender, and an "expression of her longing for a penis." (26) As with Thomas, the solution was to help the woman adjust to her lack of masculinity. (27)

    While Thomas's and Freud's theories on the causes of female criminal behavior are no longer in use, some of their conclusions can still be seen in modern psychological theories regarding female offending. (28) For example, a study done by Gisela Konopka (29) showed four factors associated with female offending: the onset of puberty, the process of identification with the mother, changes in the position of women in society, and an indistinctive authority resulting in low self-esteem and loneliness. (30) These findings are a restatement of earlier theories that blatantly ignore the effects of economic and social factors; these theories also describe female criminal behavior as an emotional response to being deprived of the opportunity to play out a traditional gender role. (31)

    The third category of theories are those which can be loosely considered as socioeconomic theories. One of the first studies of female offenders that can be considered an example of socioeconomic theory was conducted by Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck, who followed five hundred female offenders from childhood to life after parole. (32) The Gluecks studied such factors as ethnicity, religion, parental jobs, educational background, offender's employment, substance abuse, and whether the subject exhibited an obviously unstable, personality. (33) The Gluecks found that environmental and biological conditions affected a woman's chances of rehabilitating. (34) Unlike earlier studies, the Gluecks focused on criticizing the criminal justice system, rather than merely adjusting the female offender to society. (35)

    Later studies in this area focused on the relationship between a woman's delinquent behavior and the "blocked," or lack of, opportunities a woman has during her life. (36) Other studies in this area have focused on criminal behavior as a reflection of economic necessity. These studies show that the majority of female offenders are economically disadvantaged, self-supporting, and often have children. (37) Such factors have led various researchers to comment that this economic reality may make criminal behavior necessary for women to provide for themselves and their families. (38)

    Other variants of socioeconomic theories that focus on different environmental or external influences include the following: differential association, (39) labeling, (40) social control theories, (41) and even the women's liberation movement. (42)


    1. Female Offenders and Their Criminal Offenses

      Female offenders differ from their male counterparts in many respects. Women tend to commit less serious offenses, have a longer history of physical and/or sexual abuse, are more often the parent or guardian of minor children, are more likely to have inferior economic situations, and have a higher rate of substance abuse. A significant majority of female offenders are convicted on nonviolent offenses, such as property, (43) drug, (44) and public order offenses. (45) According to the 1998 statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics ("BJS"), about sixty percent of women in state prisons have had a prior history of physical and/or sexual abuse. (46) In about one-third of the cases in which women reported prior abuse, the abuse started at a young age, and continued into adulthood. (47) Such abuse often leads to drug use as a coping mechanism to numb and survive both emotional and physical pain. (48)

      Those few women incarcerated for violent offenses usually victimized other women, (49) and often had a prior relationship with the victim. (50) In cases where women were convicted of murder or manslaughter, the victim tended to be either a husband or boyfriend, who had "repeatedly and violently" abused the offender. (51) Drug use also plays a significant role in violent crime by women. For example, in a study of women arrested for violent crimes in New York City and Washington, D.C., over fifty percent had been using at least one or more illegal drugs before their arrest. (52)

      In general, drugs play a major role in the incarceration of women. (53) In 1998, approximately eighty-two percent of federal cases involving female offenders included at least one drug offense. (54) Male offenders in federal cases have comparable rates of drug charges. (55) Yet women offenders in state prisons report significantly higher overall drug usage than their male counterparts. (56) Forty percent of convicted women in state prison were under the influence of drugs when they committed their offense, and one-third reported that...

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