NIC's Women Offender Initiative: New Research in Action

By Buell, Maureen | Corrections Today, December 2010 | Go to article overview

NIC's Women Offender Initiative: New Research in Action


Buell, Maureen, Corrections Today


Often, correctional staff members express negative sentiments about working with women until they begin to gain a better understanding of how to effectively work with this population. One might hear that working in a women's facility is not "real corrections," or that working with several male offenders is easier than working with one female offender. Women bring life experiences and ways of communicating that often challenge accepted correctional practices developed for a predominantly male population. Those differences are significant enough to dissuade staff from working with female offenders and can negatively impact outcomes with this population.

Since NIC received its first request for technical assistance specific to females offenders in 1975, the field has begun to recognize that many correctional practices do not have the same applicability to women as men. Through a review of available research literature and upon hearing from seasoned practitioners with years of experience working with women involved in the justice system, it is clear that there are many areas within corrections that are unique to women; there are incidents that occur with higher frequency for women than for men and these incidents have a different impact on women than men.

At the top of the list are physical and behavioral health issues (highrisk pregnancies, lack of maternal health care and resultant issues), high rates of drug and alcohol addiction due to underlying psychological and emotional issues, histories of interpersonal violence--including sexual and physical abuse that often continues into adulthood--and responsibility for children. These issues often affect a women's behavior both in the institution and on community supervision, and it challenges staff who are not equipped to manage those behaviors.

Correctional practices should effectively apply to all offenders. However, it is said that "same does not mean equal," and for those who have worked with female offenders that phrase is well-understood. Applying a practice to a female offender in the exact same way it is applied to a male may have different results. If those areas of difference are not better understood and reflected in correctional practices, the corrections field will continue to see women being driven deeper into the system and resources being used with reduced benefit. Working with female offenders is challenging and clearly not for everyone, but fortunately, there are research-based and gender-informed programs for women in the public domain that better target the risk and needs of this population.

Noted below are a number of initiatives that NIC offers specific to female offenders. These are designed to assist jurisdictions in reducing risk, making better use of resources, targeting treatment and supervision areas that have more relevance for women, and generally improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system.

Women's Risk and Need Assessments

In early 2002, responding to repeated requests from the field, NIC sponsored a working meeting in Washington, D.C., with the objective of developing a research agenda on assessment strategies for female offenders. Participants included researchers and practitioners recognized for their knowledge and expertise in areas related to female offenders. Together, the participants developed an agenda that would establish research standards and the formation of multi-disciplinary teams to further explore women's involvement in the criminal justice system.

In 2004, NIC partnered with the University of Cincinnati via cooperative agreement to construct two gender-responsive risk/needs assessment with scales pertaining to gender-responsive needs presented by women, referred to as the Women's Risk and Need Assessments (WRNA). In addition to identifying strength-based items, the new tools have increased focus on identifying issues around mental health, healthy relationships, parental stress, safety and abuse, and self-efficacy. …

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