Women, Crime, and Criminal Justice

By Williams, LaVerne McQuiller | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Women, Crime, and Criminal Justice


Williams, LaVerne McQuiller, Women's Studies Quarterly


Throughout most of our nation's history, women who suffer criminal victimization, women who break the law and women professionals working in the criminal justice system have been largely ignored. The plight of victimized women was overlooked for centuries because of institutionalized sexism within the legal system. Women offenders and criminal justice professionals have largely remained invisible, laboring under the excuse that females make up a small percentage of offenders and professionals in the criminal justice system.

Recently this logic been undermined as women's participation in all areas of the criminal justice system has dramatically increased. For example, today a growing number of women work in all parts of the criminal justice system as lawyers, judges, and police officers. Feminist lobbying efforts have strengthened the laws dealing with crimes against women such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, battering, and stalking. As offenders, recent attention has been given to women because the number of women imprisoned in the United States has increased six-fold in the past two decades.

Using a feminist perspective, this collection of essays, reviews, syllabi, and teaching materials identifies issues unique to women in the criminal justice system, including their disadvantaged status as a result of their gender, race and class. This "multiple marginality" is manifested within the criminal justice system in several ways. First, as offenders, researchers have consistently concluded that African-American women experience harsher treatment in the criminal justice system from the decision to arrest through sentencing than white women. Moreover, changes in governmental policy regarding drug offenders have disproportionately affected women, especially poor women of color in terms of prosecution and incarceration. second, because of men and women's different locations in the hierarchies of race, class, and gender, women's experiences of victimization are not uniform. Lastly, as criminal justice professionals, access to positions in the justice system differ as a result of women's personal characteristics.

Women and the Culture of Incarceration: Prisons, Programs, and Punishments

Over the past two decades, a correctional system that has long ignored women suddenly confronted a population explosion for which they were totally unprepared. The soaring rates in the women's prison population have been fueled primarily by changes in criminal justice policies and practices over the last ten years. The increased rates of incarceration for drug law violations and other lesser offenses, changes in judicial decision making, and legislative mandatory sentencing guidelines have drawn women into jails and prisons in unprecedented numbers.

Unfortunately, this increase in the number of incarcerated women has not been matched by equal attention to specialized programs geared particularly for women-such as medical care, drug treatment, mental health treatment, and counseling for prior victimization from sexual assault or battering. This is especially true in light of the criminal justice system's focus on a more punitive philosophy. Women prisoners have experienced a history of neglect in the development and implementation of programming specialized to their experiences. Historically, programs for women offenders were based on male models without a thought about their appropriateness for women. Thus, little evidence exists about what works for incarcerated women.

The essays in this section focus on the myriad of issues facing incarcerated women and examine their lives before, during, and after incarceration. The characteristics of women in prison reflect a population that is marginalized by race, class and gender. The majority of imprisoned women are poor, disproportionately African-American and Latina, undereducated, and unskilled. Moreover, they are mostly young mothers with personal histories of drug abuse, mental illness, unemployment, and physical and sexual abuse.

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