Feminist Criminology

VI. Feminist Criminological Scholarship

The subject matter of feminist criminology, as in the discipline of criminology overall, includes a broad range of topics. As described earlier, feminist approaches to criminological theorizing have been an important focus. Also, it is evident that violence against women is part of the puzzle. Feminist criminology recognizes that there is not a clear-cut dichotomy of victims and offenders; instead, female offenders are quite likely to also be victims, whether of childhood abuse or abuse as adults (Belknap, 1996). Furthermore, the motherhood role must be taken into account, and numerous feminist criminologists have explored the effects of large-scale female incarceration on both the women and their children (Sharp, 2003).

Extensive research has examined the offending of women and girls. The bulk of feminist criminological scholarship since the mid-1980s has focused on the criminal justice system’s response to female offending. The war on drugs and the federal sentencing guidelines of the 1980s resulted in massive increases in the number of women sent to state and federal prisons. Changes designed to reduce the inequities of indeterminate sentencing resulted in mandatory sentences for lower level female offenders. In particular, aggressive prosecution of drug offenses has impacted women, especially women of color. By the end of 2007, more than 100,000 women were incarcerated for felony convictions on any given day.

This has led to extensive research on the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration of female offenders. Feminist criminologists also have focused on the conditions in women’s prisons and the programs available to female inmates (cf. Sharp, 2003). Two major characteristics of feminist criminological scholarship are evident in the research. First, feminist scholars have consistently argued that the treatment of girls and women in society helps shape their criminal behavior. However, this focus does not end with pointing out the female pathways into crime but instead leads to the second characteristic: Feminist scholars point out that because women and men have essentially different life experiences as well as motivations for crime and types of crime, the criminal justice system should not be designed to treat women the same as men. Thus, considerable recent scholarship has focused on both the problems of incarcerated women and difficulties with how the system is serving them. Some have gone as far as to challenge the gender equity of the corrections systems, arguing that applying the punitive approach designed for men is a form of “vengeful equity,” a sort of backlash against women demanding equality. (For a detailed discussion of this argument, see Chesney-Lind 1999, cited in Sharp, 2003.)

This emphasis by feminist criminologists may be better understood by looking at an example. Perhaps a young girl is being physically or sexually abused in the home. Eventually, she may run away, may start using drugs, and may engage in sexual behaviors, perhaps for money or drugs in order to survive. She is eventually caught and remanded back to the custody of her parents. As a result of her behavior, conditions in the home may become worse, with more abuse or unreasonable rules. She again runs away, perhaps getting arrested for drug possession this time. Depending on the location, her status, and perceived resources of her family, she may be placed into a juvenile facility and deemed incorrigible. While there, she experience more abuse. Upon release, returning to her community she finds that she is now labeled as a “bad” girl. She may be behind academically in school; she may have difficulty finding peers with whom she can spend time; and she begins hanging out with an older, tougher crowd. She meets a young male, several years older, who seems to have ready access to drugs. They eventually become intimate, and she becomes pregnant. By this time, she may be old enough that her parents no longer report her as a runaway. She drops out of school and has the child. The boyfriend leaves, whether through boredom or choice. Now she is a poorly educated single mother, with low self-worth, probably with a drug problem. She has difficulty finding and holding a job. She may steal to support herself, her child, and her drug use. Eventually, she may find another male to help support her. This relationship is likely to be abusive. Her self-esteem becomes even lower, her drug use progresses, and eventually she is charged with felonies and sent to prison. She may or may not have sought drug treatment prior to incarceration. With a dependent child, her options have been limited. She may have been on probation, but her inability to stay off drugs as well as her inability to hold a job and to pay fees makes her a noncompliant probationer. Once she arrives in prison, she finds that there are few programs there to help her with her greatest needs: drug abuse, victimization issues, low self-esteem, education, job training, and planning how to successfully reintegrate into society on her release. Thus, once she is released, she quickly falls into the same behaviors that sent her to prison. She is rearrested, her parole is revoked, and she finds herself in prison again. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that she is a single mother. Her child may be with her family, or social services may have intervened and placed the child in foster care. When men go to prison, the children’s mother usually remains with the children, but when women are incarcerated, the majority of the time there is no father present to care for the children, creating hardship for the child as well as the mother. Because women’s prisons are often in remote areas, she is rarely if ever able to see her child. If the child is with family members, he or she may be abused, just as the prisoner was as a child. If the child is in state custody, her parental rights may be terminated. Now the woman is more depressed and feels like she has failed at motherhood. The cycle then continues. Without effective interventions that can help her deal with past traumas and resulting mental health issues, the likelihood that she will remain off drugs is low. Without assistance in improving her educational and job skills, building a healthy support network, and finding a safe place to live on release, there is small chance she will be successful when released again.

This scenario illustrates the complexity and interwoven nature of feminist criminology. Theories that illuminate the victimization and experiences of women may help explain their criminal behavior where mainstream theories cannot. Also, the plights of the hypothetical woman just described, and thousands like her, have driven feminist criminologists into the criminal justice system to examine its structure. Awareness of women’s pathways into crime points to the need for prisons and prison programs that are geared to the needs of female offenders. Thus, the prison system and programming in women’s prisons have become major foci of feminist criminological research as well. Because the correctional system arose in response to male offending, the needs and abilities of women are often not taken into account. Feminist criminologists demonstrate, through their research on the characteristics of female prisoners, what types of programs would be most beneficial for women as well as which ones might not be effective.

Even substance abuse treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and therapy in prisons are viewed through a gendered lens. During the 1990s, the therapeutic communities and boot camp program became common forms of rehabilitation in U.S. prisons. However, these programs are not equally well suited to males and females. Among other issues, women respond less positively to confrontation, a staple of both types of programs (Marcus-Mendoza, Klein- Saffran, & Lutze, 1998). Also, female prisoners tend to have health problems that may preclude their participation in physically demanding activities (Sharp, 2003). Finally, to increase the likelihood of successful reentry, motherhood must be taken into account. With two thirds of female prisoners mothers to minor children, it is readily apparent that this is a serious social issue.

As the field moved into a focus on the criminal justice system and its response to women, scholarship related to women working within that system began emerging as well. Both the need for more workers and the increasing number of female prisoners have contributed to an increase of women working in law enforcement, as attorneys, and in the corrections industry. The entire field of criminal justice has long been dominated by men, in part because most criminals were men. With the rapid increase in both feminist criminological scholarship and of female prisoners, there is a burgeoning body of work by feminist criminologists that takes a gendered approach to studying policing, corrections, and the law. This approach has primarily focused on two aspects of the gendered nature of criminal justice employment. First, it looks at how women and men differ in the practices of their jobs. Feminist criminology asks what characteristics women working in criminal justice bring to their jobs and how these impact their work. Second, some feminist scholars have examined the ways in which the structure of law enforcement, corrections, and courts continues to lead to gender inequality (Britton, 2000).