Women's experiences of rehabilitation and re-offending summary of findings

Marianne Bevan
Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Marianne Bevan is a Research Adviser in the Research and Analysis team. She started at Corrections in May 2014. Prior to working at Corrections, she conducted research and implemented projects on gender and security sector reform in Timor-Leste, Togo, Ghana and Liberia.


International research has shown that the pathways women take into offending differ in significant ways to those of men. Poverty, peer influences, parental neglect, families with criminal associations and impulsive personality traits are influential factors for both men and women. However, there are also more ‘female specific’ factors which influence women’s entry into crime and continued offending. These include: physical and sexual victimisation; intimate partner relationships with offenders; tension associated with parenting and child custody processes; mental health issues; substance abuse; and financial pressures (Giordano et al., 2006; Kruttschnitt , 2013; Van Voorhis et al., 2010). Therefore some researchers have recommended that women have access to “gender-responsive programming and treatment” to target their needs (Wattanaporn and Holtfreter, 2014).

This research was focused on the narratives of a group of women in New Zealand who have re-offended. It aimed to get a better understanding of what they thought were the important factors driving their re-offending and what approaches to rehabilitative assistance could usefully support their desistance from crime. The study was based on interviews with 54 women, who were:

  • currently serving a prison sentence, and

  • had served at least one prior custodial or community sentence in the past six years, and

  • had previously attended a rehabilitation programme.

Interviews and analysis were carried out by Marianne Bevan and independent research consultant Nan Wehipeihana.

The study specifically targeted women who had previously had a rehabilitative intervention and had gone on to re-offend following this, and were now in prison. This was an innovative way to explore what types or aspects of rehabilitative assistance were perceived as useful, what the gaps were, and what additional supports are needed to support women’s desistance. It was not intended to be an in-depth study on the nature of female offending that is representative of the female offender population in New Zealand. Rather it was a qualitative exploration into the experiences of a relatively small number of women which could provide useful insights into how to make rehabilitation programmes more targeted to the needs of this female offender group.

Results will be used to inform current efforts by the Department of Corrections to develop a female offenders’ strategy and improve the support provided to women to desist from crime.

Women’s perceptions of the factors influencing their re-offending

Findings from this research suggest that women’s re-offending was often the product of situational triggers such as relationship challenges, addictions and substance abuse, economic pressures and limited support. However, the underlying beliefs they held about themselves, their gender roles and their perceived ability to deal with challenges without resorting to crime (‘internal’ or ‘agency’ factors) influenced how they responded to these situational stressors and pressures.

‘Internal factors’: Identity, resilience and agency

Identity: How they saw themselves

International literature on the desistance and persistence of offending shows that people who persist have been unable to distance themselves from their identity as an offender and to conceive of themselves in a pro-social light (Healy, 2013). In this study, the ways that women saw themselves and their future prospects (their identities) were shaped in two ways:

  • How they felt about themselves was often influenced by their histories of poverty, trauma and crime; many felt trapped in cycles of offending, and so struggled to move past an offender identity.

  • Their sense of self was also shaped by their gender identities, including their roles as mothers, daughters and partners. They had a tendency to ‘people please’, which meant they prioritised managing relationships and putting others’ financial and emotional needs before their own.

These identities created a range of tensions for the women, where meeting relationship responsibilities often took precedence over trying to address their criminogenic needs and desist from crime.

Resilience: How they responded to challenges

As people attempt to desist from crime, they will inevitably be faced with challenges. While the things that ‘went wrong’ for these women caused varying degrees of frustration and emotional instability, the issues they faced are similar to those faced by other women who do not re-offend. However, the women in the study felt they did not have strategies to withstand these setbacks without resorting to crime. There were two main ways that women described their responses to challenges.

The ‘spiral down’

Many of the women described ‘spiralling down’ or ‘snapping’ in response to compounding emotional issues related to relationship stress, grief and guilt.

For these women, crime resulted from a loss of control or inability to cope in the face of emotional instability or external stressors. This was the case for Amiria*. She had not offended for five years but the trauma from her mother’s murder led to a return to a gambling addiction as a coping mechanism, which, in turn, led to theft as a means to fund this addiction:

Things got hard around six months before coming into jail. My mum died, she was murdered. I don’t even know my mum. I don’t love my mum but I had to bury her by myself and I just went downhill from there, gambling. And I didn’t know who to reach out to say f**k help me, I’m going down, sinking and sinking and, yip, it was too late, I did my crimes.

Crime appeared as part of a broader loss of control as she ‘sunk’ under the weight of feeling unable to manage the emotional fallout of her mother’s death.

The ‘revert to crime script’

Women in this group described offending as a more conscious choice to return to, or continue, old patterns of offending. In the face of financial and relationship challenges, these women returned to crime because they felt it offered the best, or at times only, option to meet relationship and financial commitments. Crime also met ‘emotional needs’ for some; the ‘thrill’ they got from offending could bring a degree of normalcy, stability and distraction when they were experiencing challenges they felt unable to deal with. This was the case for Waimarie**, a woman with a long history of dishonesty offending. She described her stealing as being driven by financial need, and by a feeling of compulsion. After being released from prison and experiencing a range of post release relationship and financial challenges, she attempted suicide. As a way to deal with these feelings, she returned to stealing:

Stealing again made me feel normal, I started feeling myself again … I know it’s all up in your mind and you can just say no but we just get this feeling like an adrenalin rush … it does make you feel good although there’s a lot of times it makes you feel guilty.

Within these narratives, the women revealed conflicting feelings about the extent to which they felt able to desist from crime. Those in the ‘spiral down’ group perceived themselves to have limited control over their re-offending in the face of mounting challenges. Those in the ‘revert to script’ group described their decisions differently; offending was perceived as a rational decision to address economic constraints and relationship commitments, and meet emotional needs. However, this ‘choice’ was complicated by their feelings of powerlessness, where the perceived absence of other realistic options to meet their needs meant they returned to crime.

‘Situational factors’

The women in this study faced a range of setbacks in the period immediately preceding their latest offending. Four main situational factors – relationships, economic pressures, addictions and substance abuse, and a lack of support – played out as setbacks or triggers for re-offending:

  1. Relationships going wrong – with partners, children, and other family members – were often seen as an immediate trigger which led women back to offending. For many, relationships kept women stuck in cycles of offending, for example, through their return to families involved in crime, offending with partners, and offending to provide for family and partners. Relationships also created stress and trauma, for example, from domestic abuse, losing custody of children and family estrangement which, in turn, became precipitators to re-offending.
  2. Reliance on drugs, alcohol and gambling played a key role in women’s re-offending, albeit in different ways. For some women, substance abuse and addictions were seen as key drivers of their offending if they were stealing, or selling drugs in order to fund drug or gambling addictions, or if they offended while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Stealing was also seen as an ‘addictive’ or ‘compulsive’ activity by some women. For others, substance abuse and addictions were seen to play a less direct role, for example, by contributing to wider instability that together with other pressures culminated in their re-offending.
  3. Economic pressures were frequently seen as a key trigger for re-offending. These included: financial stressors after release from prison, a desire for things they could not otherwise afford, and difficulties finding meaningful employment with limited job experience and criminal records. However, there were also a range of other factors at play that influenced how they experienced and withstood financial pressures, including addictions, relationship commitments, and their perceived levels of confidence.
  4. Women frequently returned to neighbourhoods and networks which facilitated their return to crime and where pro-social support networks were not readily available. For some women, even when services were available, their internalised belief that they should be self-reliant and ‘solider on’ meant they did not seek these out. This meant that they often did not have appropriate support when dealing with financial and emotional stress, and more easily fell back into crime.

Case Study One: Difficult relationships, ‘soldiering on’ and spiralling down

Rachel*** was released from prison after doing a sentence for violence. When she got out, she made some positive changes by starting a course and doing counselling for substance abuse. However she was also spending time with her same drug-using friends, had a tense relationship with her father and described being in a bad relationship. Her mother got sick and she became her main caregiver. She did not have much outside help because she had a tendency not to ask for it and put others’ needs before her own: “a lot of the time when things are getting hard for me, if I’m not getting help I don’t really reach out and ask for it. I just suck it in, soldier on and keep going.” She was also working and felt stressed. This led her to eventually ‘snap’ and commit violence: “I don’t know, I just jumped in my car and went and ran someone over. It was like build up, build up, and I just snapped.” Like other women in this group, Rachel perceived herself as lacking strategies to emotionally overcome compounding situational challenges, and crime became part of a spiral downwards.

Case Study Two: Rent payments, compulsive stealing and ‘reverting to script’

Mere**** grew up around gangs and had a history of shoplifting. When she was released from prison she wanted to desist but relationship challenges, addictions, economic instability and a lack of pro-social support acted as barriers to this. She previously had a period of not offending when she moved away from her family with her partner, but the relationship became violent and she returned to her old networks. This time, she knew she would be more likely to re-offend if she went back to her family, but her mother was sick. She described herself as ‘addicted’ to shoplifting. In an attempt to avoid this compulsion, when she was released she started gambling, but then became addicted to this. She had a range of economic stressors, including rent payments and power bills, and didn’t know where to go for social welfare. In the face of these setbacks, she reverted to shoplifting:

I’m stuck in that cycle where it’s hard to get out or I don’t know how to get out because I’m not shown any different way or any other way because I’ve always been on the same track … So it was just back to the same old cycle again. I tried to do it better but it didn’t work.

Mere’s narrative, like many, revealed a sense of powerlessness and inevitability; she felt trapped in historical patterns which started young, and in the face of hurdles, reverted to the patterns she knew.

Women’s perceptions of their rehabilitation

Women generally valued having rehabilitation opportunities. Rehabilitation was most useful when multiple needs were identified and targeted simultaneously, and where women were given the opportunity to build confidence and resilience. The following points summarise approaches to rehabilitation that the women perceived to be useful or potentially useful. Some women had these types of supports and found them helpful. Others had not experienced these but thought they could potentially have helped them to desist from crime if they had been available.

  1. Accessing treatment should be a motivating process

    Women wanted accessing treatment to be a motivating process: this meant women wanted to be properly consulted by department staff on their needs; wanted to be informed about what programmes were available; wanted to make decisions about the programmes they would do in collaboration with staff; and wanted their progress to be positively acknowledged by staff.

  2. Making sense of the past

    The women wanted programmes that could help them to understand the underlying drivers of their offending and how their past experiences – including experiences of victimisation and trauma – shaped their current offending behaviours. This could help them take responsibility for their actions.

  3. ‘The will and the way’: Identity and resilience

    The women wanted programmes that would help them build a positive self-identity, self-esteem and emotional resilience so that they could have confidence in their abilities as well as the ‘tools and techniques’ needed to break cycles of offending. Specifically, programmes and services were valued by those who had them, or perceived as potentially useful, when they:

    • Supported women to think more positively about themselves, to value their strengths, and to create a pro-social identity.
    • Focused on people pleasing behaviour and developing strategies for putting boundaries in place within their relationships. A focus on building women’s capacity to recognise and deal with unhealthy interpersonal relationships and build positive relationships with partners, family and children was important but rarely adequately targeted.
    • Built emotional resilience and provided techniques (such as anger management, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills) to better handle challenges without resorting to AOD use, violence, and other offending.
    • Provided employment support by way of practical skills (access to training and job placements in a range of areas, job seeking skills) and built their confidence to seek work, especially if they had a history of unemployment.
  4. Emotional support in desistance

    The women wanted practical and emotional support in the community after release to help them manage difficulties and cement desistance. Women thought this type of support should involve:

    • Immediate post-sentence: support which provides an avenue to talk through financial, relationship and addictions challenges, and develop strategies to deal with them.
    • Longer-term: support to build pro-social networks and develop links with service providers in the community, which women can rely on when experiencing challenges or ‘slipping’ later on down the track.

Addressing inter-related needs in an individualised way

Some of the women had received rehabilitation support that had helped them to stop offending for limited periods of time. However, as identified above, there were gaps in the provision of programmes and support services women thought were needed. Even when women had access to useful rehabilitation support, in all cases these women went on to re-offend. To some extent, this is not unexpected as desistance is a process where there are likely to be slip-ups and reversions. Putting in place new patterns where default responses are not crime could, therefore, be a long and difficult process for many. While women’s experiences of their rehabilitation showed that programmes or services could be useful in targeting one need (for example, a substance abuse problem), targeting one need in isolation was not considered sufficient to address their multiple, entangled drivers of crime. For example, treatment for addictions and substance abuse issues was often provided in isolation from dealing with other issues that women were experiencing in their lives, which was perceived to limit the treatment’s effectiveness. To summarise, women wanted an ‘individualised’ approach to their rehabilitation that simultaneously addressed inter-related emotional, practical, relationship and substance abuse issues.


Within the context of relationship difficulties, economic pressures, substance abuse issues and a lack of support, many women felt they did not have the capacity to create a different life and remain resilient when confronted with emotional instability. The limited capacity many women felt they had shows the need to ensure that women have the confidence in their abilities and strategies to build healthy relationships, manage addictions, find meaningful employment and seek support.


Giordano, P., Deines, J. A. & Cernkovich, S. (2006). In and Out of Crime: A life course perspective on girls’ delinquency. In Heimer, K. and Kruttschnitt, C. (Eds.), Gender and Crime, New York: New York University Press, 17-40.

Healy, D. (2013). Changing Fate? Agency and the desistance process. Theoretical Criminology, 17(4), 557-574.

Kruttschnitt, C. (2013). Gender and Crime. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 291-308.

Van Voorhis, P., Wright, E. M., Salisburn, E. & Bauman, A. (2010). Women’s Risk Factors and their Contributions to Existing Risk/Needs Assessment: The Current Status of a Gender Responsive Supplement, Criminal Justice Behaviour, 37 261.

Wattanaporn, K. A. & Holtfreter, K. (2014). The impact of feminist pathways research on gender–responsive policy and practice. Feminist Criminology, 9(3), 191-207.

* All names have been changed.

** All names have been changed.

*** All names have been changed,

**** All names have been changed.