III. Pathways and Women’s Crime
For many people, the pathway to crime is complicated, and for women this picture is no different. Women do tend to have patterns in common with men, but there is now a wealth of documented gender-specific factors related to women’s participation in crime and in the criminal justice system. Feminist scholarship has, again, helped detail how women’s roles in society have traditionally been ignored within the criminal justice system and has helped provide explanations of female offending. Current research documents how the complexity and the context of the female life is often the root of her involvement in offending and in the criminal justice system. In short, women have significantly greater histories of trauma, addiction, relationship difficulties, abuse, and economic marginalization than their male counterparts. A type of life course perspective, called the pathways perspective, currently exhibits the best method of understanding women’s involvement in offending and in the criminal justice system.
Girls and women suffer rates of victimization and abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional) at much higher levels that their male counterparts. The most recent survey of national correctional populations (including inmates and probationers), for example, demonstrated that well over half of the female jail inmates had ever been physically or sexually abused, compared with fewer than 1 in 5 of the male inmates. Furthermore, females’ abuse occurs at disproportionate rates both before and after they enter legal adulthood; in other words, females are more likely to suffer serious abuse as both girls and as women. Existing research supports a link between child and adult victimization and female criminality, and women in the criminal justice system have higher levels of abuse than the general female population. Trauma theorists assert that these past abusive events are often cumulative and result in trauma that is rarely treated in any professional manner. Thus, women adapt to the trauma in ways that are deemed criminal, especially through the use of drugs and other substances and crimes designed to support these addictions.
Women are more likely than men, at an aggregate level, to be incarcerated or otherwise under correctional supervision for drug and property offenses. Another national survey of incarcerated individuals demonstrated that, in 2006, for women, 28.7% were sentenced for a drug offense and 30.9% were sentenced for a property offense, compared with corresponding rates of 18.9% and 20.1% for men. Female offender involvement with drugs and other substances is multifaceted, and property crimes are often drug related. Existing research demonstrates that factors such as trauma, abuse, women’s subservient roles in society, health problems, poor self-image and self-efficacy, and relationship difficulties are often directly related to substance use and related to female offending. Addiction theorists posit that we could indeed reduce levels of female offending if we addressed the gender-specific factors that lead to addiction and drug-related crimes.
Other scholars have focused on differences in female-specific relationships and the interaction with individual and social development. Because of differential socialization processes, girls mature into adulthood differently than do boys, and they do so in ways that place them in relatively vulnerable and disadvantageous positions. The prevalent histories of abuse for girls leave them vulnerable to lower levels of self-worth and empowerment and a diminished ability to have meaningful relationships. The role a patriarchal system has in socializing female expectations and responsibilities is beneficial to understanding the gender-specific strains that leave girls and women susceptible to crime and substance use. Furthermore, women are more likely to be raising dependent children alone than are men, and this, coupled with their own difficulties with relationships, can often create a cycle of dysfunction.
The pathways perspective is a particularly robust theoretical explanation for female involvement in crime. This theoretical perspective takes a more holistic stance toward women’s involvement in crime by incorporating all of the gender-related risk factors thought to contribute to female criminality. When the context of female social participation is placed squarely in the context of a patriarchal society, one that limits female participation in meaningful ways and labels females “bad” when they do not follow gender-related rules, the transparency of their life problems and the intersection with crime is noticeable.
A pathways, or life trajectories, perspective informs us that girls and women in the criminal justice system suffer higher rates of victimization than boys and men in their families of origin and within their intimate relationships. They are more likely than men to self-medicate with both legal and illegal substances, to have fragmented family histories, to suffer from physical and/or mental health problems, to be unmarried mothers with minor children, and to have limited vocational skills and sporadic work histories. These factors, singularly or, more often, simultaneously, come together in ways that positively affect women’s offending and involvement with the criminal justice system.
These factors increase the likelihood of offending and other criminal justice involvement for women, especially for women of color and those with lower socioeconomic status. The socialization of girls and women shapes the available opportunities (perceived or otherwise) for women who find themselves on the fringes of society. These limited choices often lead females, first as girls and later as women, into homelessness, substance use, survival crimes (often as prostitutes or in the sex industry), unhealthy and often abusive relationships, and more serious criminal offenses.
Gender operates in very powerful yet often-unnoticed ways. Girls’ and women’s lives are limited and shaped by circumstances that devalue them relative to their male counterparts. Although we are more aware of some of these outcomes, such as lower pay for similar work, the manner in which girls and women enter the criminal justice system has remained unfortunately invisible for too long. Note that we are not claiming that feminist scholars do not wish to imply that the prevalent histories of abuse and vulnerable positions within patriarchal societies leaves women without any sense of agency; instead, the point is that females who find themselves represented as offenders and other criminal justice participants are more likely than others in the general population to exhibit the factors mentioned in this section.