IV. The Nature and Extent of Women’s Crime
One of the best predictors of crime, especially violent crime, is gender. Males are responsible for a disproportionate amount of reported crime. For example, in 2006, males made up 82.8% of the individuals arrested for violent crimes (murder, aggravated rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) and 68.8% of the individuals arrested for property crimes (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny theft). Women, however, made up 64.2% of the prostitution and commercialized vice arrests, and girls represented over half of all runaway arrests (refer back to the “Pathways and Women’s Crime” section for explanations of the higher representation of females in these areas).
Although females represent roughly one quarter of all official arrests, their participation in the criminal justice system has grown at a rate faster than men’s. There is no dispute that the overall percentage of arrests accounted for by women has increased. More disputable, though, is what these numbers really mean. It might be that women are indeed committing more crime now than they were even 30 years ago. The recent literature suggests that it is more likely, though, that the level of criminality has not significantly risen but that attention to female behavior has increased, particularly in the area of assault.
Violent crime has historically and consistently remained a largely male phenomenon. This is true despite contemporary media efforts to depict ever-increasing levels of female violence and “bad” girls. Indeed, the percentage of females arrested for homicides has significantly decreased over the past 40 years. Female arrests have increased significantly for property crimes, especially larceny and fraud, as well as for drug offenses. Both of these changes in female criminality are likely a result not only of some increased offending but also of increased attention to these behaviors by law enforcement, at local and federal levels.
As discussed earlier, the women who most often become involved in crime and end up in the criminal justice system tend to be economically marginalized and have a lack of educational and/or vocational opportunities. Women’s economic status, coupled with their more extensive histories of abuse, make it understandable that the crimes they tend to commit more often, or in which they are otherwise overrepresented, are ones that could be considered “survival crimes.” For example, property crimes such as larceny or theft; fraud forgery; and sex crimes, such as prostitution, are viable methods of survival for women on the economic margins. If there is an average female offender, she is young, a single mother, and a woman of color; is undereducated and not well skilled; and has a history of abuse. These factors shape the nature and extent of crime for women as compared with men.
In any discussion of women’s criminality it is crucial to understand women’s involvement in drug use. As mentioned earlier, women are more likely to turn to substances, both legal and illegal, as a means of self-medication for untreated emotional trauma, often related to histories of abuse. This has become even more problematic for women as the United States has been imposing tougher sanctions for illegal drug use. As the following sections highlight, women’s faster rate of prison growth is largely attributable to mandatory drug sentencing laws.
It is increasingly difficult and indefensible to render girls and women invisible given their increased participation in the criminal justice system over the past few decades. Their increased presence in official arrest and conviction records also has implications for the manner in which they should be processed through the criminal justice system and otherwise treated and supervised within the community. The next two sections deal with these important issues.