Monday, September 16, 2019


Article Index

II. The Female Offender: Themes and Difference From Male Offenders

      Criminology tends to focus on male offenders due to their being 90 percent of incarcerated persons. This necessitates the study of feminist criminology in conjunction with criminology because when women are simply made a part of criminology research they are studied through the lens of their male counterparts. This male lens can cause criminology research to overlook the themes and issues in female offending due to their status as a minority in the system. Some of these themes include the female offender's role as a mother, her experiences as a victim, her socioeconomic status, her mental health needs, her substance abuse, and her offending patterns, which will be discussed in turn.

      Female offenders are commonly custodial mothers of minor children. Over 55 percent of incarcerated women reported having lived with their minor children in the month before incarceration (41.7 percent single households), while only 35.5 percent of men reported doing so (17.2 percent single parent Eighty percent of all incarcerated mothers' children live with their grandparents. Due to the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with their children while incarcerated, some women face the additional challenge of having their parental rights contested. The National Prison Project found that many of the “women [in D.C.] were not being advised of court dates when their parental rights were being Furthermore, when the women's lawyers were informed of this lapse, the lawyers “became angry. . .because they felt the project was trying to make them look

      Incarcerated women are disproportionately minorities and of low socioeconomic status. The incarceration rate of all males is 943, male Caucasian is 459, male Black 3,074, and male Hispanics 1,258. The incarceration rate of females is 67, female Caucasian is 47, female Black 133, and female Hispanic 77. These statistics mean that minorities are consistently over represented in the incarcerated population as compared to the population at large. This trend holds true in Oklahoma for African-Americans and Native Americans as well. In addition, incarcerated women are likely to have lower socioeconomic statuses. In Oklahoma, 89.4 percent of 1,171 female offenders received into custody were unemployed (76.5 percent frequently unemployed) and 62.3 percent reported reliance on social assistance. Thus, incarcerated women are more likely to have a commonality in their socioeconomic status than their racial minority status.

      Another commonality among incarcerated women is that they are more likely to require mental health treatment. It is estimated that one in four adults has a mental illness or mood disorder, but the rate of mental illness of those incarcerated is twice as much. This discrepancy is partially explained by the fact that mental illness becomes more likely with traumatic life events. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study showed that as the number of adverse experiences in childhood increases, so does the likelihood of substance abuse or having a mental illness. The maximum ACE score is eight with each event counting as one. Only 7 percent of those in the middle class had a score of four or higher, while 49.5 percent of a sample of incarcerated women had a four or higher. With each point increase in the ACE score, the likelihood of having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or PTSD prior to incarceration increased 26 and 37.9 percent respectively. Thus, given that most incarcerated women have been victims, their high risk of having a mental illness is explained.

      Another common theme among female offenders is that women are more likely to commit nonviolent crimes. Of offenders incarcerated for more than a year, 53.8 percent of men are serving for violent crime while only 33.9 percent of women are. This holds true in Oklahoma as well. In Oklahoma, in 2011, the top five controlling offense categories for which women were convicted were obtaining or possessing controlled substances (20.5 percent), distributing controlled substances (21.8 percent), larceny (7.3 percent), forgery (7.0 percent), and assault (6.2 In contrast, men were much more likely to commit assault, burglary, and murder. Of the total imprisoned female population in Oklahoma, 65.9 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and 34.1 percent for violent crimes. In contrast, about 50 percent of men are incarcerated for violent crimes. Thus, women in Oklahoma, like women nationally, commit violent crimes at a lower rate than men.

      Drug abuse is a theme among incarcerated women, but drug distribution or possession as a controlling offense is not. Drug abuse is a common theme, as 67 percent of the women in Oklahoma prisons need substance abuse treatment. It is not a common theme in terms of the controlling offense, however, since distribution or possession is only about 40 percent of the controlling offenses. This percentage would expand though, if all of the offenses of incarcerated women were taken into account. Thus, while women have varied experiences before coming in contact with the criminal system and commit crime in different ways, the general themes of nonviolent crime, victimization (which goes hand in hand with mental health), substance abuse, and motherhood hold true.


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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law