Women and the Criminal Justice System

Think of prison populations and you think of men. Indeed, men make up the greatest numbers within the system. Yet, the population of women in U.S. Prisons has more than doubled in the past 10 years. How a woman will be punished when she violates acceptable norms reflects the common view of that woman’s role in the greater community. Customary influence by family and community, for women, has traditionally been effective and much more violent than for men. The promise of formal controls, which for women carries a heavier toll than for men, seems intimidating and could account for the lower female prison population. The fact is, though, that across the world the percentage of women confined in prison is only a fraction of the total prison population, yet their sentences are generally longer and harsher. The question should be, Why this disparity when it comes to women and law?

Recent studies challenge the stero-typical thinking that women who are imprisoned are “bad”, or “whores”, or unnecessarily “tough”. Universally harsher and longer sentences illustrate a partiality. The issues of gender role and patriarchal culture must be understood to comprehend the relationship of women to law. Women in Kabul, have been targets of intense repression and victims of fundamentalist interpretation of religious law. Recently, a young woman wanted to marry a boy she had chosen and rejected by her parents’ choice. When she appealed to the Taliban for help, they sentenced her to five years in jail for violating Islamic law. Her two female cousins, 14 and 15, were taken to be married by force in exchange for a fee paid to their families. While the Taliban authority exemplified extremism, it is common for the Afghan family of the groom to pay a fee for his bride, diminishing the woman to property of a patriarchal society.

In the United States, the disparity of incarceration rates for men of African or Hispanic descent is well documented. For women, Black, Hispanic, or White, the disparity is even sharper. The percentage of women under correctional supervision had risen to almost 10 percent by 2006 compared to 1.3 percent increase for men. The disparity in incarceration rates for women may in part be attributable to the claim frequently made by women prisoners that they were incarcerated for crimes that were coerced, or even committed by their male partners, for whom they took the fall under the mistaken belief that a woman would get a more lenient sentence. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice also reveal that prior to their own imprisonment, the majority of these women prisoners had been victims of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, or coerced drug abuse involving older men; in other words crimes committed against them by men presaged these women’s incarceration.

It has been my experience that men commit homicide as the result of extreme rivalry and competition,, and committed the act in public and outside of the family. This indicates to me that men are conditioned from infancy to see their role outside of the family core and into the world arena. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to remain within the family unit. Most women that commit homicide share a commonality of similar background experiences of abuse. Maybe it is time that homicide be examined as a “social issue and cultural phenomenon”. Additionally, society is critically unforgiving for women who are believed to have betrayed their maternal attributes. While men who commit homicides are viewed to have momentarily lapsed into uncontrollable anger, women are seen to have violated their nature. The behavior of a man in this situation is seen as an extreme exhibition of his masculine nature, even at times more firmly establishing his masculinity, but a violation of this nature for a women overturns her identity and leads to her ruin.

Whatever the violation and wherever the country, the population of women in prison continues to grow. Logic would say that women are committing more crime. Are they really? Or, has society, through the utility of formal and informal law, changed the intensity of its response to women?

“The advancement of women without a doubt is a pre-condition for the establishment of a humane and progressive society”

United Nations

A society reflective of that goal can only be measured by the maturity and benevolence of its citizenry and a complete respect for human life.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for all the statistics that are being provided. However, everyone has provided U.S. statistics. I was discussing this on a worldwide perspective. Also, consider this:

    Overcrowding is an issue in almost all male prisons thereby male prisoners get released earlier from their sentences based on this. This issue does not exist for female prisons so female prisoners do not get released early based on overcrowding. Prisons use good behavior as an incentive but the ultimate goal is to release prisoners to make room for new commitments. This is not necessary for female inmates for the most part do their entire sentence.

    Many sentencing alternatives exist for men that dont exist for women such as work release and sentencing to drug rehabilitation centers. There are places where they exist for women but in comparison to men they are much less. Even as you compare them to total incarcerated.

    Most male prisons like the one I work in have rehabilitation programs such drug abuse, vocational training, and education. I visited a female prison in my same state where the rehabilitation programs were home making and cooking. If Im trying to re-enter society I would find drug abuse programming and trades more useful than homemaking.

    Women commit crimes but is the way they are handled by the CJ system different? I would say yes.

  2. Sorry — even when you look at early release statistics, it is women who are more likely to get it. And, even when you look at special programs, there are a whole slew of programs available to women, but not men (not the least of which is parenting programs — even though the vast majority of incarcerated parents are male, virtually all of the programs targeting incarcerated parents target mothers-only).

    What I find amazing are the people who won’t accept that African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated because they are just plain bad. Instead, they insist on looking at the special disadvantages inherent in the way we treat blacks. Yet those same people insist the fact that men are disproportionately incarcerated is not a symptom of that there are important men’s issues (and disadvantages) to look at.

  3. Sorry- I work directly in the system. This is based on my experience with people not only in the U.S. but in other countries. I wrote this about women that doesn’t mean I dont accept that African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. That is a fact I witness everyday as well but this article wasn’t about that. I didnt say either issue was more important than the other. I just wrote about one. What I find amazing is so many people are quick to jump to that conclusion just because one part of an issue is focused on. Racism is alive, just as sexism is.

  4. Wow, it’s like we’re living in two different universes.

    Of course, racism and sexism are both alive. I was just pointing out the inconsistency in observing that, because of racism against blacks, blacks are more likely to be incarcerated, while because of sexism against women, women are NOT more likely to be incarcerated (i.e., men are).

    So, back to women: I’m amazed that so many people (thanks to conditioned sympathy and media bias), believe that roles are enforced more severely upon women, that legal treatment is harsher for women, that life is more violent for women, etc.

    Look at how sex roles are enforced. Women are expected to raise children, while men are expected to be protectors, to cite just ONE example. But, even before feminism, a woman who said, “I know a traditional sex role is to raise children, but I don’t want to be a mother,” was harshly-but-only criticized. But, a man who said, “I know a traditional sex role is to be a protector, but I don’t want to be a soldier,” was thrown in jail!

    Legal treatment? You must know that when a man and woman partner up to commit a crime, the police routinely go to the woman and offer her a light sentence if she testifies against the man.

    Why are the populations in Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, Congo, Cambodia, etc. so disproportionately female? It’s because so many men have been slaughtered?

    “While men who commit homicides are viewed to have momentarily lapsed into uncontrollable anger, women are seen to have violated their nature.” You must know that it is when women commit homicide that we are more likely to say it was a one-time thing and she is not a danger to society. That’s one reason their sentences are so much more lenient. Indeed, some governors have even issued blanket pardons to all women incarcerated for spousal murder. But, you are right that we do assume a murderous woman has violated her nature — because we have such a higher view of the female nature (suger’n’spice and everything nice).

    In fact, I think that’s the assumption (that women are just better than men) which so colors your perceptions
    that no matter how much logic or statistics or examples I give you, nothing I say will make a difference. I fully agree that many incarcerated women have been abused, and I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. It’s just that I’m confident that you can find more incarcerated men who have also been abused, and I think they deserve just as much sympathy.

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