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Understanding Women's Experiences with the Criminal Justice System as Accused and Offenders

The following sections provides a brief overview of women’s experiences with the criminal justice system as accused and offenders. For additional information, click on the Studies link at the bottom of the page.

  • Women’s Pathways and Involvement in Crime

    Pathways to crime are the experiences that lead individuals to engage in criminal behaviour.Footnote 6 Targeting interventions to prevent crime, and developing policies aimed at the fair and rehabilitative treatment of offenders, requires a good understanding of these different pathways. This can only be achieved by recognizing that the experiences that lead diverse groups of women and men to engage in criminal behaviour are often different, and their needs once they have entered the system are also different.Footnote 7

    The literature on pathways to crime has often connected women’s criminalization to experiences of victimization. The victimization-criminalization continuumFootnote 8 contextualizes women’s criminal behaviour within their personal experiences of violence and victimization. Many coping strategies to victimization or pathways to crime can move women along the continuum, increasing their risk of criminal behaviour.Footnote 9 For example, most women in contact with the criminal justice system have experienced social exclusion caused by physical or sexual abuse, mental illness, poverty, homelessness, racism, and/or a history of trauma.Footnote 10 Criminalized women also often report histories of addictions, self-injury, or attempted suicide.Footnote 11 Substance use is a major factor that influences women’s involvement with crime. In fact, many women commit crimes such as theft and property offences to financially support their addiction.Footnote 12

    Although some pathways are similar among men and women, many social and economic conditions affect women more than men, such as single parenting, lack of access to affordable child care, living in poverty, lack of access to employment opportunities and unstable housing.Footnote 13

  • Women Offending

    Compared with men, women represent a small proportion of those accused of police-reported criminal incidents.Footnote 14 Women also tend to be arrested and convicted for less serious crimes than men.Footnote 15 For example, violent crimes account for a smaller proportion of crimes with a female accused, than for crimes with a male accused. In contrast, property crimes make up a larger proportion of crimes with a female accused than for crimes with a male accused.Footnote 16

    In addition, women are far less likely than men to be accused of violent crime.Footnote 17 Women accused of violent offences are often accused of committing the offence in the context of family violence or intimate partner violence and act in self-defence or in defence of their children.Footnote 18 When women engage in acts of violence, the most common victims are spouses or other intimate partners.Footnote 19

    Drug-related offences account for only a small proportion of police-reported criminal incidents by female accused.Footnote 20 International research reveals that women’s involvement in organized crime is often facilitated by familial and community networks.Footnote 21

  • Federally Incarcerated Women

    As a result of the 1990 hallmark report entitled Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women (hereafter after referred to as Creating Choices), multiple changes were implemented to improve women’s imprisonment conditions in Canada, including closing the Prison for Women and replacing it with regional correctional institutions and Indigenous healing lodges. Creating Choices also signaled the importance of viewing women’s criminality as resulting from the effects of trauma, substance use and addiction, and social isolation.Footnote 22

    In addition, the 1996 Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston by the Honourable Justice L. Arbour highlighted the need for a separate woman-centred correctional system in Canada.Footnote 23 In response, gender-responsive correctional programming was introduced in Canada and includes, for example, the Women Offender Correctional Program (WOCP), which provides a holistic, gender-responsive program model.Footnote 24 It also includes the Aboriginal Women Offender Correctional Program (AWOCP ), which provides culturally relevant programming for federally incarcerated Indigenous women.Footnote 25 Effective programming, along with employment opportunities, can help offenders successfully reintegrate into the community. However, the timing of access to programming is an issue, especially for women serving shorter sentences. They are often unable to complete the programming before they are released from correctional institutions and so are not able to fully benefit from the programs designed for reintegration.Footnote 26

    Although women represent a small proportion of incarcerated individuals, they are the fastest growing prisoner population.Footnote 27 In Canada, the rate of women in federal penitentiaries has increased 50% over the past 20 years.Footnote 28

    To help the successful reintegration of women offenders, they must be given the opportunity to work on their criminogenic needs, especially within the prison context or through community-based programs.Footnote 29 These needs must be appropriately addressed via trauma and violence-informed, as well as gender-responsive approaches, programming and/or treatment to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.Footnote 30 Criminogenic needs are typically grouped into the following seven domains:

    “incarcerated women’s lives reflect those of the most marginalized women in our communities who lack access to housing, physical and sexual safety, employment, and mental health and addictions treatment” (Balfour 2020, 161).
    • Employment/education – which assesses the offender’s employment history and education attainment;
    • Community functioning – which assesses factors such as housing and poverty;
    • Marital/family – which assesses the offender’s family situation;
    • Associates – which examines the social entourage of the offender;
    • Personal/emotional – assesses the various personality and emotional traits of the offender;
    • Attitude – assesses the offender’s pro-social views; and,
    • Substance use and addiction – assesses the presence of current or past substance use issues.

    In most criminogenic domains, incarcerated women are more likely to have a moderate/high need than incarcerated men. For example, incarcerated women are more likely to have an incomplete high school education and were unemployed at the time of arrest compared to their male counterparts.Footnote 31 In addition, many incarcerated women have children or other dependents at home, which can lead to increased anxieties when separated from them.Footnote 32 Research has also revealed negative effects for both mothers and their children due to this separation.Footnote 33 Although the Correctional Service of Canada offers the Mother-Child Program, the program has a history of low participation rates due to the rigorous screening required to participate to ensure the safety of everyone involved.Footnote 34

    Another example of the different needs of incarcerated women is the disproportionately high number of incarcerated women with mental health issues compared to incarcerated men, as well as the general population. In fact, many federally incarcerated women meet the criteria for a mental disorder, have low psychological and social functioning, and some have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons prior to incarceration.Footnote 35 In addition, incidents of self-harming in federal correctional institutions are on the rise and disproportionately common among women.Footnote 36 Most women who engage in self-harm do so as a coping strategy to deal with emotions and histories of trauma.Footnote 37

    In 2017, the Auditor General indicated that federal institutions do not have “sufficient capacity to deliver the mental health services that women offenders needed.”Footnote 38 This is of particular concern because illnesses can be exacerbated by prison conditions and, if they lead to disruptive behaviour, self-harm or violence, they can result in even more restrictive and punitive conditions of detention.Footnote 39 Although this highlights the need for appropriate health and mental health care in federal institutions, research has also shown that the prison environment is often not conducive to therapeutic interventions and healing.Footnote 40 Specifically, certain aspects of the prison environment, such as isolation, confinement, and a focus on security, can interfere with best practices for treating the most serious mental health issues. Trauma and violence-informed practices and interventions are an important tool to meet the needs of criminalized women, particularly those who have histories of abuse and who engage in self-injury.

  • Women’s Reintegration into the Community

    Women released from prison do not usually pose a significant risk to the community. They tend to have low levels of recidivism and when they do re-offend, their crimes typically do not increase in severity.Footnote 41 Advocacy groups such as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies have argued that this low risk of re-offending should be considered when planning for the release of criminalized women.

    Early release from prison can help women successfully reintegrate into the community. However, many incarcerated women are on waitlists for correctional programming and community housing plans, which ultimately affects their eligibility for parole.Footnote 42 Other barriers to a successful community reintegration include:

    • meeting numerous and strict parole conditions;
    • finding housing and employment;
    • obtaining health and mental health care;
    • obtaining treatment for substance use issues;
    • obtaining social assistance and/or having financial stability;
    • reuniting with children and families; and,
    • dealing with the stigma of their criminalized status.Footnote 43

    Leaving these issues unaddressed can result in women living in unsafe situations and can increase their risk for victimization and re-offending. Due to the unique experiences and needs of criminalized women, it is important for them to have access to gender-responsive resources.

  • Gender-Responsive Approaches

    A gender-responsiveFootnote 44 understanding of criminalization is essential because women’s experiences and pathways to crime are different from men’s.Footnote 45 A gender-responsive approach recognizes that women’s pathways into criminalization are connected to experiences of victimization and the effects of trauma. Developing policies, programs and procedures that reflect these differences can improve the management, programming and service delivery models for women offenders, while also being culturally appropriate and non-discriminatory.Footnote 46

    Gender-responsive approaches include the following guiding principles:

    Gender-responsive approaches “require an acknowledgement of the lived realities of women’s lives, including the pathways they travel to criminal offending and the relationships that shape their lives” (Bloom et al. 2003, 2).
    • acknowledge and show how gender and other intersecting identity factors make a difference in how people experience the criminal justice system;
    • create trauma- and violence-informed environment based on safety, dignity, and respect;
    • address substance use, trauma, and mental health issues through comprehensive, integrated, and culturally relevant services and appropriate supervision;
    • dedicate more resources to studying the experiences of women in the criminal justice system, particularly women with other intersecting identity factors;
    • develop policies, practices, and programs that are relational and promote healthy connections to children, family, and significant others;
    • provide women with opportunities to improve their socio-economic conditions; and,
    • establish a system of community supervision and re-entry with comprehensive, collaborative services.Footnote 47

For related studies and resources, please click on the link above.

Click on the link above to learn how to share your study on the unique rights, needs or experiences of women interacting with the criminal justice system.

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