The Substance Abuse Counseling Needs of Women in the Criminal Justice System: A Needs Assessment Approach

Article excerpt

The authors assessed the substance abuse counseling needs of women in the criminal justice system using interviews (n = 304) and surveys (n = 1,170). On the basis of the results, the authors call for gender-specific treatment as well as family-oriented support for women who are mothers.


One consequence of mandatory sentencing laws, decreasing rates of release, and increased lengths of sentences is that the number of women incarcerated in the United States has been on the rise since the 1980s (Hanlon et al., 2005). In fact, the number of females in prison has more than doubled from 1990 to 2001 (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2003; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). An additional 300,000 women are under correctional control (Pastore & Maguire, n.d.). These women have concerns and counseling needs that are different from those of their male counterparts. Following a brief review of the literature related to these needs (with a particular focus on dependent children and the relationship between substance abuse and crime), we identified a gap in the literature related to the counseling needs of these women. To address this paucity of research, we conducted a needs assessment using a mixture of interviews and survey responses.

Needs of Women: Dependent Children

When the woman who offends and is incarcerated has dependent children, her behavior negatively affects persons other than herself. Several statistics support this assertion. First, approximately 75% of women who commit crimes have children (Schram, 1999). Similarly, for those whose crimes result in incarceration, approximately 70% of women in jails, 65% of women in state prisons, and 59% of women in federal prison have minor children (Bloom et al., 2003; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999), with the average being two (Johnson-Peterkin, 2003). Finally, 64% of female offenders lived with their children prior to incarceration, and incarcerations average 3 years in duration (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999).

The stark reality of these statistics is that there are 1.3 million American children whose mothers have been absent to them for a significant period of their lives (Poehlmann, 2005). Because of mothers' roles as primary caregivers, their incarceration is associated with family instability and conflict (Dallaire, 2007). When mothers are incarcerated, 55% of their children end up living with their grandparents, 20% are placed with their fathers, 15% live with other relatives, and 10% end up in the welfare system (Dallaire, 2007). Women with dependent children often experience increased tension and conflict with their extended families and relatives because of the stress of negotiating who will provide for the children while the women are incarcerated. Many of these families are already struggling with poverty and other developmental risk factors, and the increased conflict further alienates incarcerated mothers from already scant and strained support networks. As such, preincarceration factors, such as poverty, limited education, homelessness, employment limitations, and high rates of substance use (Bogart, Stevens, Hill, & Estrada, 2005), create cumulative risks in that they compound the negative effects of a woman's incarceration (Johnson & Waldfogel, 2002).

Needs of Women: Substance Abuse

There is a strong relationship between women's use of alcohol and drugs and illegal behaviors. Greenfeld and Snell (1999) estimated that 25% of women on probation, 29% of women in local jails, 29% of women in state prisons, and 15% of women in federal prisons had been consuming alcohol or other drugs at the time of the offense. In addition to influencing criminal behavior, alcohol and other drug use can produce deleterious personal and physical effects among women that differ in meaningful ways from the way drugs and alcohol impact men. For example, women with alcohol use disorders have death rates between 50% to 100% higher than men with alcohol use disorders. …