Predictors of Recidivism in Serious Female Offenders: Canada Searches for Predictors Common to Both Men and Women

Article excerpt

Until the past decade, research concerning the origins and continuance of criminal behavior in females has been virtually absent from social science literature, so that the development of theories of female offending has occurred in an empirical vacuum. A recent informal review of some major journals found that only 2 percent of the articles included information pertaining to female offenders, and most of these focused on delinquency issues. Even then, the majority of previous research was not directed toward an understanding of factors associated with the origin or maintenance of female criminal behavior. The few attempts to address possible causative factors were mostly restricted to a few variables of interest, or focused on select and atypical groups of offenders, such as prostitutes.

Early Theories

Most previous theories of female criminal behavior fit into one of several themes. Some emphasized deviations from stereotyped femininity, or biases about women's place in the social hierarchy; others centered on female biological functioning and sexuality, and their presumed relationship to the psychology of women. Most of these theories made assumptions about the "inherent nature" of women, and directed themselves primarily toward what were felt to be "natural" differences between men and women. Thus, they revealed more about the cultural biases of the time than the reality of criminal behavior.

Such early theories continued to influence research even into the 1980s. For example, research interest in such phenomena as deviations from gender roles, departure from a heterosexual orientation or physiological changes associated with normal reproductive biology represent a concern with deviation from stereotypical (and stereotyped) femininity. Such theories rely on the assumption that female criminal behavior is unique in that it emerges from entirely different determinants than male criminal behavior. However, these theories, based on the uniqueness of female crime, have not been able to account for the full range of female criminal behavior. Thus, they cannot explain the diversity of female criminal behavior, including such acts as fraud, assault, robbery or murder.

Modern Thought

With the persistent paucity of data on female criminal behavior, historical trends continue in more recent theory development. Many theories still assume inherent, structural or socialized differences to explain female criminality. For example, we may cite some recent explanations for gender differences in crime: a theory that argues that sex-specific forms of deviance in males and females reflect their respective inherent natures; another theory invoking sex-specific socialization; a theory based on differences in the social structure of opportunities; a theory that suggests a combination of culturally learned behavior and social structure variables; role-convergence theory, involving the masculinization of middle-class girls; and role-reversal theory. Yet, none of these theories have enough empirical support to provide us with definitive answers.

Feminist writers also have focused on the structural subordination of women in developing theories of female criminal behavior, but feminist theory has not yet been able to provide systematic alternative explanations of female criminality. Conversely, some male-based theories have been adapted to account for female crime, with an emphasis on different causes for female crime. An adaptation of social control theory has been put forth to account for the gender gap in official crime. A feminist version of Kohlberg's theory of moral development has been postulated to explain female criminality. Again, despite their political interest, such social-psychological explanations lack empirical evidence.

We are aware of only a small number of empirical studies published during the past 25 years on female recidivism. Earlier studies of general reoffending have suggested the importance of such factors as familial problems (criminality, substance abuse, instability, physical or sexual abuse), demographics (age, education, race or ethnicity) or personal history (drug abuse, homosexuality, emotional problems, unstable employment, anti-social personality disorder or prior criminality). …