Female offenders

The philosophical argument that gender is relevant, including when considering offending is compelling. Some issues affect women exclusively or more than men: (unwanted) pregnancy, (adolescent) motherhood, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and depression. These women realities have motivated some to argue for gender-responsive treatment approaches (Byrne & Howells, 2000; Covington & Bloom, 2004; Morash, Bynum, & Koon, 1998; Sorbello, Eccleston, Ward, & Jones, 2002). Covington and Bloom (2004) recommend that criminal justice services "acknowledge that gender makes a difference" (p. 4) as women appear to have different pathways into criminality, they respond differently to supervision and imprisonment, they exhibit differences in terms of substance abuse, trauma, mental illness, parenting responsibilities and employment histories and they represent different levels of risk within the prison and the community. Their "most common pathways to crime are based on survival (of abuse and poverty) and substance abuse" (p. 10). Covington and Bloom (1998) state that female offenders are "mostly young, poor, and undereducated" with complex histories of trauma and substance abuse. "Most are nonviolent and are not threats to the community" (p. 5). Hannah-Moffat (1999) suggests that in respect of women one must consider some differences between male and female offenders: the types of offences, the context in which the offences occurred and the women's past history and experiences. Steffensmeier and Allan (1998) propose a gendered approach to offending to understand the nature of female offending and develop female offender programmes. This approach differs from gender-specific theories which attribute causal patterns for female crime as different to patterns for male crime. Steffensmeier and Allan (1998) suggest taking into account:

  1. the organisation of gender (differences in norms, moral development (see also Gilligan, 1993 as cited in McClellan, Farabee, & Crouch, 1997 and in Andrews & Bonta, 2003), social control, relational concerns and reproductive, sexual and physical differences)
  2. access to criminal opportunity (underworld sexism, differences in access to skills, crime associates and settings)
  3. motivation for crime (differences in taste for risk, self-control, costs-benefits, stressful events, relational concerns) (see also Walklate, 2004)
  4. context of offending (differences in the circumstances of particular offences e.g. setting, victim-offender relationship, use of weapons).

In general there is little research concerning the origin, severity and maintenance of female criminal behaviour (Loucks & Zamble, 2000). The next section looks in more detail at what is known about violent and sexual female offenders.