Gender and Race Differences in Crime Research Paper

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Theoretical and empirical research on the relationships among gender, crime, and delinquency has grown in scope and sophistication in recent decades. Less apparent, though, is whether and to what extent these advances are reflected in current criminal and juvenile justice practices and policies. This research paper briefly reviews major feminist and gendered theories of crime and delinquency and then turns to key laws, policies, and practices to assess whether these theoretical advances translate into improved policy and practice. We conclude with suggestions for how feminist scholarship can help shape gender-specific and culturally appropriate criminal and juvenile justice programming and training.


Tough-on-crime and zero-tolerance laws and policies enacted in the United States in recent decades dramatically increased the number of women and girls processed through the criminal and juvenile justice systems. During this same era, another set of laws and policies sought to reduce violence against women and girls and to change the ways in which police, prosecutors, and judges respond to rape and intimate partner violence, in particular. To what extent do these legal reforms, as well as the practices of criminal and juvenile justice institutions, reflect theoretical advances and new knowledge about gender and crime? To address this question we, first, briefly summarize major feminist and gendered theories and perspectives. Second, we assess the extent to which recent criminal and juvenile justice policies and practices, as well as major legislative initiatives, reflect feminist perspectives. Third, we examine whether these reforms have successfully met feminist objectives or have been eroded and undermined and, if so, in what ways and to what effect. The paper concludes with suggestions for ways in which relevant theory and research might better inform criminal and juvenile justice policies and practices.

Feminist And Gendered Theories Of Crime And Delinquency

This section briefly summarizes the principal theoretical perspectives on gender, crime and delinquency before turning to an assessment of their utility and visibility in criminal and juvenile justice policies and programs, as well as relevant legislation. Readers are referred to ChesneyLind and Morash (2011), Miller and Mullins (2009), and Daly (1998) for more detailed reviews of cutting-edge theoretical work on gender, crime and delinquency, and compilations edited by Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2004), Heimer and Kruttschnitt (2006), and Zahn (2009) for examples of empirical research that has tested and refined these theories. It is also important to note that while much of this literature focuses on women and girls, a number of studies examine masculinities and crime to better understand how and in what contexts men engage in violence, both against women and against other men (e.g., Dobash and Dobash 1992; Messerschmidt 1993).

Most recent criminological research that explicitly examines gender can be categorized as studies of the “gendered ratio of crime,” “gendered pathways,” “gendered crime,” and “gendered lives” (see Daly 1998:94–95). Studies of the gendered ratio of crime seek to explain the gender gap in self-reported and official rates of crime and delinquency. Research from this perspective often begins with what is known about male crime and delinquency and asks why women and girls engage in less crime. While some scholars examine individual level influences, feminist criminologists examining the gender gap tend to focus more on gendered social organizations and structural conditions, as these shape the types of offenses and contexts in which girls/women and boys/men commit crimes (e.g., Steffensmeier and Schwartz 2004).

Gendered pathways research examines the trajectories by which women and girls, and G men and boys, move in and out of law-breaking behaviors. Women’s and girls’ pathways often include histories of victimization and of strategies for coping with that victimization that may themselves be criminalized (e.g., substance abuse, running away, fighting back), further entangling them with the criminal and juvenile justice systems (Chesney-Lind and Pasko 2004; Daly 1992). Some research refers to the “blurred boundaries” between victimization and offending, but even when the boundaries are sharp, the focus here is on the most common paths to criminal and juvenile court and how those paths are structured by gender, race, class, and other sources of inequality.

Studies of gendered crime focus on the social context and situational qualities of offending by girls and women and by boys and men. Victimization may be a situational factor resulting in crime, as seen, for instance, when women kill their abusers. In other situations, though, crime and delinquency may be resources for gaining status, desired commodities, revenge, or simply a means of having fun. Much of this research emerges from sociological studies of “doing gender,” reminding us that gender is performed in multiple ways, depending in large part upon the resources available, and those resources are themselves structured by gender, race, class, gender orientation, and age, among other dimensions (see, e.g., Miller 1998; Messerschmidt 1993).

Finally, research on gendered lives asks how gender structures the kinds of actions and identities women and girls, and men and boys, employ to survive. Examples are Maher’s (1997) detailed analysis of sex work by women drug users and research on the differing types and effects of peer relationships among adolescent boys and girls (e.g., Giordano et al. 2003).

Regardless of which of these approaches is paramount, the most comprehensive theoretical and empirical studies of crime and delinquency attend to the multiple and intersecting ways in which gender, racial, economic, and other inequalities structure individuals’ lives and choices in patterned ways. Borrowing from Miller and Mullins, we must study gender and gender inequality “at the macro level (overarching structural patterns of gender inequality and their effects on crime and delinquency), at the meso level (gender inequality within the context of social institutions such as family, school, and neighborhood) and at the micro level (interpersonal relationships within and across gender)” (2009:34).

Feminist Influences On Law, Policy, And Practice

The civil rights and feminist movements have led to major social and legal changes in the United States and, to varying extents, globally. They have provided social recognition for a variety of problems that had previously been defined as simply private harms. Yet empirical research and theorizing about gender, race, class, and other intersecting sources of inequality are not necessarily reflected in contemporary criminal and juvenile statutes, policies, and practices. Policies and programs that ignore how structural and institutional contexts shape and constrain individual lives are likely to be ineffective. As Miller and Mullins (2009) remind us, “taken-for-granted ideologies about gender” result in scholarship “that fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands the nature of girls’ delinquency and produces policies that are misguided at best, and quite harmful at their worst” (2009:31–32).

Legal Reforms

Since the 1970s, a number of significant legislative and policy initiatives have emerged in the areas of rape reform, intimate partner violence, and deinstitutionalization, among other issues. Many of these legal changes resulted from social protests and lobbying by feminist and civil rights organizations and reflect feminist thinking about crime and delinquency. Yet in most cases, the new laws were not as far-reaching as their advocates had hoped, and many were eroded further during the antifeminist backlash of the late 1980s and 1990s.

For example, the rape reforms that swept the United States in the 1970s were seen as a major victory at the time. They provided for rape shield laws, repealed requirements for corroboration, redefined resistance, and in some cases created the criminal statutes necessary for rape prosecutions, including the then novel concept of a crime of spousal rape. Yet as Caringella (2009) demonstrates, they have been largely educational and symbolic in value, with comprehensive rape reform still an unmet goal.

Similarly, public attention to intimate partner violence as a major social problem led in the 1980s to pro-arrest domestic violence legislation and policies in states across the USA and to passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 (and its reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005), the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (and its reauthorizations in 2003, 2005 and 2008), and the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. These laws and policies succeeded in changing public understandings of rape and domestic violence, in particular, and brought these crimes out of the shadows. Yet they stopped short of the larger structural changes envisioned by their advocates and, in some cases, contributed to new problems. Most notably, as of 2000, nearly 60 % of states had passed either mandatory or arrest-preferred legislation, with the unanticipated and ironic consequence of increasing domestic violence arrests and prosecutions of women who were defending themselves against violent partners (Hirschel et al. 2007:265). Public attention to violence against women has also affected perceptions of women who ultimately kill their abusers. The “battered woman syndrome” legal defense helped judges and juries understand that in certain circumstances, killing one’s abuser may be an understandable and even reasonable response to long-term abuse, yet women who did not fit stereotypic images of how battered women should behave did not receive the same level of concern and legal support. This was particularly problematic for women of color. More generally, the new laws and policies were a step forward in many ways, yet did not adequately address the experiences of racially and economically marginalized women, immigrants, lesbians, and transgendered persons who could not assume the same support from police and prosecutors as middle-class white women experienced.

Girls, as well as women, were impacted by these early reforms and by their often unanticipated consequences. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 called for deinstitutionalization of status offenders, the vast majority of whom were girls. Prior to that time, girls were incarcerated for lengthy terms, often longer than boys convicted of felonies, for minor acts such as truancy, running away, and other age-specific or “status” offenses that would not be crimes if the girls were over the age of majority. The intent of this legislation was negated, though, by zero-tolerance school policies, arrests of teenage girls for assault rather than incorrigibility when fighting with their parents, and other new laws and policies that expanded the pool of delinquent girls. These mechanisms, then, have come to be known as net-widening, relabeling, and upcriming (Chesney-Lind and Irwin 2008).

Policies And Practices

The greater willingness by police, schools, and other authorities to punish girls’ misbehaviors as crimes, in combination with mandatory incarceration for a variety of drug and other offenses, has resulted in soaring arrest and incarceration rates for girls and women in recent years. However, while the percentage increases in these rates have been quite large, the total numbers of incarcerated females remain small compared to males. As a consequence of the vastly greater number of males in the system and the lack of knowledge about how best to meet the needs of female offenders, studies from the 1970s through the mid-1990s reported limited funds were available for at-risk and delinquent girls (figures range from 3 % to 8 %). In response, the 1992 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act required that girls have adequate access to services, and federal agencies and research institutes began soliciting proposals for gender-responsive programs and staff training.

A review of the literature on programming for girls and women suggests three primary issues confounding efforts to better serve female offenders. First, as noted above, is the lack of adequate resources dedicated to the specific needs of women and girls. Even where programs have been developed, the funding is too often short term, preventing program sustainability and growth. Second, a number of studies have found that correctional and probation staff prefer working with males, characterizing women and girls as petty, whiney, and manipulative (see, e.g., Martin and Jurik 2007; Gaarder et al. 2004). It appears that the complexities of how and why women and girls become involved in the justice system, and the need to address a broad range of psychological, interpersonal, economic, and physical safety issues for rehabilitation and reentry, can overwhelm staff, especially in a context of inadequate resources. As a result, some probation and correctional officers come to see women and girls as simply overly emotional or needy and distance themselves from the individuals in their care. The third critical factor inhibiting better service provision is the shortage of gender-specific, culturally appropriate, and theoretically informed programming (Foley 2008). Effective programming must recognize and respond to the multiple and intersecting forms of inequality experienced by many of the girls and women in the system. These inequalities operate at structural, institutional, and interpersonal levels, functioning both as pathways into the justice system and as barriers to successfully stabilizing outside of the system.

In an effort to further our understanding of girls’ offending and identify effective, evidence-based strategies for preventing and reducing girls’ involvement in crime and delinquency, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) convened and funded the Girls Study Group in 2004. Major outcomes of the Girls Study Group include publication of The Delinquent Girl (Zahn 2009), which is a comprehensive review of the state of the field; development of a curriculum to assist staff in addressing girls’ unique experiences and recognizing how gender, race, culture, economic disadvantage, and other factors shape those experiences; and a review of assessment tools to ascertain their suitability for girls (see OJJDP also compiled a Model Programs Guide, which lists programs from prevention through sanctioning to reentry, and they fund a number of gender-specific programs including substance abuse prevention inside and outside of correctional settings, as well as Girl Scouting in Detention Centers, which targets adjudicated or court-referred delinquent girls or girls who are wards of the state.

A second major resource for staff training and program development for delinquent girls was developed by the National Center for Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). Launched in 2008, the NCCD’s Center for Girls and Young Women specifically addresses “advocacy, research, assessment services, staff training and evaluation to address juvenile justice and child welfare systems that are designed for boys and ill-equipped to meet the gender-specific needs of girls and young women” (

The evolution of these programs demonstrates that policy, programming, and training are increasingly influenced by theoretical and empirical research elaborating the ways in which gender matters. Simultaneously, evaluations of these programs and interviews with incarcerated girls and women have advanced theorizing, especially with regard to theories centered on gendered pathways into delinquency and crime. Yet while feminist scholars seek to go beyond essentialized or simplistic models of how gender intersects with race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and other factors to shape the lived experiences of individual girls, the programs in place tend to be far less nuanced.

At the adult level, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) funded and published a guide to gender-responsive strategies for female offenders (Bloom et al. 2003), maintains an online directory of programs for women involved with the criminal justice system (, and offers a curriculum to support management and operations within women’s prisons that draws at least in part on feminist theoretical and empirical research. Modules include women’s pathways to prison, gender-responsive management principles, and methods of addressing staff sexual misconduct, among other topics.

Controversy continues to center, though, on the appropriateness of risk and needs assessment tools developed for use with male inmates – and especially the Level of Service InventoryRevised (LSI-R) – when working with female offenders (see Morash 2009, for a summary of this debate). The NIC funded a multisite, multilevel (prison, probation, parole) Women’s Classification Study to determine, first, whether assessment and treatment of gender-responsive needs pertaining to trauma, abuse, mental health, self-efficacy, self-esteem, parenting, and relationships are relevant to women’s future offending and other adverse outcomes, and second, whether adding items tapping these gender-responsive needs improves the predictive validity of assessment tools such as the LSI-R. The research team affirmed that programming to address women’s unique needs is relevant for criminal justice outcomes and that including gender-responsive items significantly improves the predictive validity of so-called “gender-neutral” tools (Van Voorhis et al. 2008). They caution, however, that the new instruments are intended for use in genderresponsive, evidence-based treatment centers where practitioners are skilled in addressing women’s needs. Moreover, adequate resources must exist to support programming designed to “empower women, address and accommodate trauma, stabilize symptoms of mental health, accommodate family reunification, teach healthy relationships, facilitate communication with children, provide parenting classes, strengthen vocational, educational, and life skills, and provide gender-responsive substance abuse treatment” (Van Voorhis et al. 2008:19).

On the ground, though, the lack of resources and training significantly impedes efforts to offer gender-responsive programming. Perhaps the best-known program for women in state and county prisons and jails is Girl Scouts Behind Bars. This partnership between the Girl Scouts and the National Institute of Justice, begun in 1992, is designed to renew bonds between girls and their incarcerated mothers.

At the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ female offender educational, recreational, and job training programs are designed to be comparable to those available to men. While comparable programming is arguably better than no programming, as was the case for women for decades, the lack of gender-responsive programming in these core areas is problematic. Currently, the Bureau of Prisons’ gender-specific programs are largely limited to medical and social services related to pregnancy and child birth, and to a 3-month community residential program (Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together) for female inmates who are pregnant at the time of commitment, low risk, and who meet other eligibility criteria. Aside from this program, women inmates in federal prisons may visit with their infants or older children only if the children are accompanied by an adult ( female.jsp).

Do These Policies And Programs Reflect Feminist And Gendered Theorizing?

While the legislative initiatives, policies, and programs discussed above broke new ground and, in some ways, reflect feminist concerns, they have also reinforced two dominant social constructions of women – first, as victims who must be protected and, second, as needing assistance in order to be “good mothers.” Women are seen as rather passive in both of these constructions. There is little recognition that women have agency and are making choices that appear reasonable to them, given the structural conditions of their lives.

Taking steps to stop sexual and other forms of violence against women and recognition of the blurred boundaries between victimization and offending are of critical importance, but feminist and gendered theories remind us that this focus on women’s victimization is insufficient for at least three reasons. First, it reinforces stereotypic images of women as weak and in need of protection. Second, it risks treating women as a monolithic, homogenous group rather than recognizing the patterned differences (based on race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, etc.) in their experiences and responses to victimization. For example, very few gender-specific programs incorporate culturally appropriate practices or address issues faced by lesbian and transgendered youth. And third, legislation and programming that focus on victimization tend to ignore the central problems of patriarchy, racial discrimination, and economic inequality that coalesce to make women vulnerable to men’s violence in the first place. Thus, theoretical and empirical scholarship on gendered lives and gendered crimes reminds us of the complexity of women’s and girls’ (and men’s and boy’s) experiences, the multiple sources of inequality and disadvantage that may shape those experiences, and the diverse ways in which they respond to their circumstances (see similarly Hannah-Moffat 2010).

In addition to this focus on victimization, the second theme underscoring much of the programming for female offenders, and especially for those who are incarcerated, is based on their status as mothers or future mothers. These include traditional parenting classes and newer interventions such as prison nurseries, extended visitation for children, and programs such as Girl Scouts Behind Bars. This approach is beneficial, as studies confirm repeatedly that being able to spend time with their children is very important to the women and their children (e.g., Bloom et al. 2003; Chesney-Lind and Pasko 2004).

Nevertheless, this limited focus on women as mothers risks reinforcing gender, racial, and cultural stereotypes of women as defined by motherhood, hegemonic norms regarding what makes a woman a “good mother,” and appropriate societal responses to “good” and “bad” mothers. Previous research has demonstrated that women who are perceived by court officials to be “good mothers” are granted some leniency and are less likely to be incarcerated, whether because their families are seen as capable of providing sufficient informal social control or because of the practical costs of caring for children of incarcerated mothers. Not surprisingly, perceptions of family roles and of appropriate sanctions when “good” and “bad” mothers transgress societal norms and laws have been found to intersect with race, class, and gender orientation. Contemporary legislation that mandates incarceration for a wide range of offenses and circumstances (e.g., probation violations) has resulted in incarcerating more women and, particularly, more poor women of color, than ever before. Yet a primary emphasis of much of the programming for incarcerated women focuses on one aspect of women’s lives – trying to help them become better mothers – without adequately addressing other critical problems that they face (e.g., employment, housing, transportation, drug and alcohol addiction) or the systemic issues that shape women’s choices.

Future Directions

There is a growing recognition among federal agencies such as the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the National Institute of Corrections, as well as research centers such as the National Center for Crime and Delinquency, of the need for theoretically informed, evidence-based programs that are gender specific and culturally appropriate. Such programs will require sustained funding and ongoing evaluations to ensure that the most effective models are widely available. Lack of adequate resources to develop and maintain programming is especially problematic for incarcerated girls and women. Improved and enhanced staff training and support for probation officers, correctional and detention officers, and other court personnel is also of critical importance. This training should be designed to debunk cultural and gender stereotypes held by staff and provide them with a broader understanding of the multifaceted contexts and complexities of girl’s and women’s lives.

Increasingly, programming for girls and women incorporates recognition of gendered pathways and the blurred boundaries between victimization and offending. This must remain a central component of gender-responsive programming, but it is not adequate or sufficient to explain the varied and complex situations and structural conditions that result in women and girls – and men and boys – engaging in crime and delinquency. Attention to victimization histories must be augmented in a number of ways, including educational, employment, and interpersonal skill building. Peer and family relationships also must be explicitly addressed. Girls’ delinquency often occurs within the context of their friendship and romantic relationships, and past and present family dynamics are often a factor in girls’ and women’s offending. Finally, programming for adolescents must recognize and address the ways in which concentrated disadvantage in neighborhoods and schools shapes girls’ and boys’ available options and choices.

In sum, curriculum development and staff training must continue to reflect differences in offending patterns (gendered ratios of crime and delinquency) but must also incorporate new understandings of gendered lives, gendered pathways, and gendered crimes if they are to be effective. Moreover, programming must take into account the structural, institutional, and interpersonal (i.e., macro, meso, and micro) forces and dynamics through which race, gender, and class collectively pattern, shape, and constrain individuals’ choices and actions. Simultaneously, scholars are encouraged to partner with practitioners to develop, assess, and refine theoretically and empirically strong prevention and intervention models grounded in an understanding of the multifaceted ways in which gender matters.


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