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Criminology. Female Incarceration and Equality Essay

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Updated: Jul 10th, 2021


Nowadays when the female emancipation movement is on the rise around the globe, there emerged two approaches toward execution of justice when it comes to women criminals. The first viewpoint argues that real equality means that women and men are treated the same by the criminal justice system. They receive similar punishments for the same crime, are provided with the same living conditions, and their background is considered when making the final decision to the same extent. The second approach, on the contrary, does not ignore the reality of gender. The power dynamics between the two genders and the observable differences in male and female behavior shape their crime patterns, avenues into the justice system, and responses to incarceration. This essay examines the issue of female incarceration applying the second approach, provides hard data, describes gender specific criminal behavior, and discusses several pressing issues concerning women in the justice system.

Female Incarceration in the US: Numbers and Figures

In the United States, the phenomenon of mass female incarceration is part of a larger trend. According to recent statistics provided by the Prison Policy foundation, the US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. As of now, 698 for every 100,000 US residents are in jail (Kajstura). That is a slight improvement as compared to the previous few years, but despite the decline in the overall incarceration rate, the number of women in prison stays at the historical high.

Less than 4% of the world’s female population resides in the US, and yet, the country is home to 30% incarcerated women (Kajstura). One hundred thirty-three women per population of 100,000 are serving a sentence – an enormous number when contrasted to the imprisonment statistics in other developed countries. For instance, in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Norway, the number of incarcerated women per 100,000 residents stays at 13, 13, and nine respectively (Kajstura). A question arises as to whether the US indeed houses more criminals than any other country in the world. A more likely explanation might be that the system is biased and erroneous and does not does justice to those who are unfortunate enough to get involved.

Differences Between Male and Female Criminal Behavior

It is argued that men and women have drastically different pathways into crime. Women often commit crimes to survive and not to gain access to a higher status and luxuries (Krisberg 299). Typically, societal norms exert pressure on women than on men to build, maintain, and nurture their families. A burden of responsibility that a woman carries while she is constrained for money and other resources might be a motivator for falling into the criminal lifestyle. Other common motives include dealing with childhood trauma and early life victimization that put a strain on their mental health and emotional stability. Female criminals are often accomplices and not the main actors: their dependency on male lawbreakers pushes them to take on various roles in illegal operations.

Researchers are still looking for reasons for the disproportionate representation of men in violent crime. Men are more likely to be both offenders and victims than their female counterparts. For instance, a longitudinal study by Fridel and Fox showed that around 90% of homicide perpetrators were male (40). Men are more likely to use firearms: 75% of male murderers used weapons as opposed to 50% for females. The researchers explain the discrepancy by the differences in male and female socialization. Men are encouraged to participate in status-seeking behavior, and for some of them, the end goal justifies the means. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to be more caring and empathetic. Out of sympathy and concern for ethical norms, they are more likely to refrain from committing a crime despite the initial intention.

At the same time, some categories of violent crime are dominated by women. For instance, female offenders are responsible for two-thirds of infanticides of children younger than five and 80% of infanticides of children under one year (Fridel and Fox 40). The motives behind such a heinous crime as the killing of a young child vary greatly. The majority of infanticides were not intentional but a mere escalation of aggressive battering. The second most common cause is mental illness such as postpartum psychosis. Lastly, a significant percentage of female murderers committed infanticide to get rid of an unwanted or terminally ill child.

Female Incarceration: Pressing Issues

It is true that mass incarceration and the faults of the criminal justice system affect both men and women negatively. However, each gender faces unique problems and challenges that need to be acknowledged and tackled consequently. One may say that women who commit crimes are punished twice. The first time, they are penalized by the system, and the second time, society forces them to suffer from lifelong consequences even after release. This section will discuss some factors that contributed to mass female incarceration and the most pressing issues to which it has given rise.

Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Victimization

For a significant part of women, partaking in crime is one of the many adverse outcomes of being subjected to abuse and maltreatment in their younger years. Asscher describes a phenomenon called the cycle of violence when former victims become abusers. In her study, the author presents an ample body of evidence on the transition of early emotional trauma into delinquent behavior in the future. Asscher says that as of now, several theoretical models are explaining the said association (215). The emotional regulation perspective described by Kerig and Becker in 2010 showcases how a traumatic experience impairs a person’s emotional intelligence, namely, the ability to process emotions in a healthy way (Asscher 215). An abused woman is emotionally numb: she barely acknowledges what she is feeling and can barely extrapolate her experiences and sympathize with others.

Within the cognitive perspective put forward by the same authors, victimized individuals operate on the premise that the world is hostile. They employ negative attribution and see a malicious intent behind indifference and rejection even when it has nothing to do with them (Asscher 215). Taking other people’s actions personally and negatively interpreting environmental signals can make them aggressive and violent in their response.

A recent case shows how unjustly victims of abuse can be treated by the system. ACLU reports that in 2018, Tondalao Hall, an Oklahoma native and a mother of a three-year-old, was sentenced to thirty years in one of the state’s maximum security prisons (Lambert). For years, Hall suffered from physical and psychological violence at the hands of her boyfriend. The woman was arrested when he attacked her little daughter, which resulted in broken ribs and femurs. It is easy to see how Hall was held hostage by the situation in which she found herself. She could not retaliate or stop her partner’s abuse, and apparently, there must have been reasons why she never reached out. Hall had never been the perpetrator, but the system decided to punish her for her failure to protect the child. The boyfriend, on the contrary, is not going to spend a single day in prison.

Oklahoma is infamously known as the world’s prison capital: the state incarcerates more people in proportion to its population than any country in the world (Kajstura). Extreme cases such as that of Hall only contribute to its reputation. They show how women undergo revictimization: they fall victim to unfortunate life circumstances they cannot entirely control. Then they are not served justice by the system that was put in place to do precisely that.

Young Women Incarceration

Girls and young women are continuously mistreated by the criminal justice system. The data drawn from the 1980s through the mid-1990s showed that the arrest rate for non-aggravated assault rose for both boys and girls. However, in comparison, the rate increased more for females than males. Researchers attribute this dangerous tendency to societal views on how girls are supposed to behave. Typically, parents expect their female children to be more obedient (Krisberg 299). If in boys, outbursts and mood swing are attributed to the changes that puberty brings, in girls, such behavior is considered deviant. Young girls are arrested for minor offenses such as truancy and runaways from home. They are often locked up for their own “protection”: it is falsely believed that violent inclinations in females escalate faster than in males (Krisberg 299). The justice system fails to recognize the complex nature of young girls’ misdemeanor. The majority of them do not need punishment: they need help, guidance, and restoration.

Young women incarceration leads to a problem that has yet to be tackled comprehensively by the justice system: recidivism. Recidivism is a phenomenon when a person who has previously been in detention decides to reoffend despite having faced the consequences of the first case of misconduct. It is argued that young people between the ages of 18 and 25 are the group that is at the highest risk of recidivism (Penner et al. 10). During this period, a person’s psyche is malleable and vulnerable to external influence. Arresting and locking up a young woman, especially for a minor offense, only deals with the symptom of a larger problem: her background, milieu, personal issues, and possible mental disorders. Penner et al. showed that respectful and fair decision-making decreases the likelihood of recidivism (16). On the contrary, unusual and harsh punishments make young people feel betrayed and failed by the system. They do not feel protected and think that in any case, the authorities will not be on their side.

Limited Opportunities

Institutions involved in the execution of justice and rehabilitation of former offenders have long been focusing on men while neglecting women’s issues. Yet, the rapid increase in the number of female prisoners calls for gender-specific programs that take the reality of female crime into consideration. As of now, very few women enjoy access to diversion and other programs that might allow for early release. For instance, Prison Policy Initiative reports that while ranking second among the states with the highest female incarceration rates, Wyoming only recently offered women an alternative to imprisonment – a residential program at a boot camp (Kajstura). Such facilities primarily target first-time offenders, and depending on the residents’ needs, some programs incorporate military training, and some are more therapeutic. A six-month boot camp serves as a replacement for six to ten years in jail, a privilege that only men could enjoy.

However, even after allowing women to participate in such programs, Wyoming failed to provide them with any. The only boot camps available are men only, and women are forced to go as far as Florida for participation (Kajstura). Texas, the champion for women incarceration, also barely meets women’s needs for restoration. The state has very few educational and vocational programs for women (Kajstura). As a result, in such states, women face even harsher repercussions than men. While both genders might receive the same sentences, female offenders have fewer opportunities to reject their lifestyle and grow.

Fortunately, there are positive examples that might instill some optimism about the future of the criminal justice system. First, researchers are as interested in women’s struggles as ever and work hard on finding the best ways to intervene and help offenders to seek redemption. For instance, Gobeil et al. conducted an extensive meta-analysis of the recent studies on justice for women. The researchers concluded that female offenders respond better to intervention techniques that focus on gender as opposed to gender-neutral group sessions (Gobeil et al. 316). The findings of such studies imply that justice-related institutions can no longer deny the reality of gender in crime and restoration.

A real-life example of a positive change based on that assumption is a recently launched program in the correctional facilities of Connecticut. As The New York Times reports, the local authorities are trying to mimic the European restorative justice system built around the concept of social dignity (Chammah). Young female offenders of Connecticut get to retain their autonomy and self-agency. Everyone is assigned a job and has the right to change it when an opportunity presents itself (Chammah). The prison officers are trained to think like therapists: for example, they encourage women to speak out about their traumas and vulnerabilities. In prison, they are assisted with career planning and writing letters and resumes. The entire system tries to convince offenders that their imprisonment is a temporary aberration, and they still have the whole life at their beckon.


The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. During the last three decades, the incarceration rate for women has risen dramatically,requires further investigation. The ample body of evidence on women’s struggles within the criminal justice system shows that it is no longer permissible to ignore the reality of gender. Women are socialized differently than men, and, hence, they show distinct criminal behavior patterns that are not found in their male counterparts. The faultiness of the US justice system victimizes women and makes them fall into a criminal lifestyle. First, it dismisses female offenders’ background and many factors that might have pushed them to use crime as a means of survival. Second, the authorities do not shy away from incarcerating young girls, which either breaks them or enrages them enough to rebel and reoffend. Third, women seeking reformation struggle to find programs that would assist them in choosing the right path in life. Admittedly, these are not the only gender-specific issues; however, the discussed phenomena clearly describe the vicious circle of crime and punishment. It is argued that the justice system needs to accommodate women more and treat them with respect as it is done in European countries.

Works Cited

Asscher, Jessica J., et al. “Gender Differences in the Impact of Abuse and Neglect Victimization on Adolescent Offending Behavior.” Journal of Family Violence, vol. 30, no. 2, 2015, pp. 215-225.

Chammah, Maurice. The New York Times. 2019, Web.

Fox, James Alan, and Emma E. Fridel. “Gender Differences in Patterns and Trends in US Homicide, 1976–2015.” Violence and Gender, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 37-43.

Gobeil, Renée, et al. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Correctional Interventions for Women Offenders: Gender-Neutral Versus Gender-Informed Approaches.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, vol. 43, no. 3, 2016, pp. 301-322.

Kajstura, Aleks. Prison Policy Initiative, 2018, Web.

Krisberg, Barry A., et al. American Corrections: Concepts and Controversies. Sage Publications, 2018.

Lambert, Megan. ACLU. 2018, Web.

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