Women of Color and Crime Research Paper

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The most common profile of a woman imprisoned is one who is impoverished, is undereducated, has sporadic employment, and is a woman of color. While scholars in years past have cited the need for more research on women offenders of color (Britton 2000; Enos 1997; Russell-Brown 2004), there remains a dearth of information on this group, especially from a feminist perspective. Because of the varied perspectives of women of color, scholars argue that mainstream criminological theories may be inadequate to explain offending behavior by women of color (Joseph 2006; RussellBrown 2004). Further, studies that have included women of color often fail to disaggregate women from men of color or from White women (Joseph 2006; Russell-Brown 2004).

This research paper will focus on a variety of female offenders within the following races and ethnicities: African American, Latina, Native American, Asian, and Asian American. A summary of the theoretical background of feminist work and what feminist scholars have found to be pertinent when studying women of color is provided. This research paper includes statistical data and analyses on offending, arrest, and incarceration rates. The races and ethnicities chosen are by no means exhaustive, but they represent growing interest in research on women of color involved in crime, particularly from a feminist or intersectionality perspective.

Theoretical Background

Mainstream feminist theory comprises three eras of development, referred to as waves, which began in the 1700s. Mainstream feminism or feminist theories include those efforts made toward gender equality by groups of predominantly White women feminists. The use of the term mainstream relates to the considerable attention – both negative and positive – given to the efforts of these women to seek social and economic equality with men, as opposed to that afforded smaller, marginalized groups of feminists. Mainstream feminist theory places gender as the primary consideration in women’s liberation efforts (Hooks 2000). However, women of color have expressed difficulty in identifying with mainstream feminist theory because of its focus on this single aspect of womanhood and because the lives and concerns of White middleclass women were placed at the forefront of the liberation efforts (Collins 2000). Women of color regularly convey that they deal not only with issues of gender inequality but with racial inequality, as well (Crenshaw 1991; King 2003). It is this status, Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) argued, that relegates women of color to an invisible class and pulls these women’s loyalties in two directions, that is, feeling the need to either choose between being loyal to feminist ideas and being loyal to their racial or ethnic community. A pioneer of intersectionality studies, Crenshaw has advocated that race and gender are not exclusively mutual, but instead these ascribed characteristics create a multitude of experiences for women that can no longer be seen as monolithic.

Studying women of color offenders allows for a more nuanced and holistic picture of women who participate in criminal offending. However, criminologist Vernetta Young (1986) emphasizes that few studies consider the race effect on gender and, likewise, few studies consider the gender effect on race. Young asserts that when African American women, in particular, are discussed in the research, they are often addressed in relation to Black men and White women, resulting in the unworthiness of research on Black women’s experiences with crime. More than two decades later, criticisms continue to be expressed about the minimal amount of research on criminally offending African-American women, suggesting that African American women do not warrant attention within the discipline of criminology (Russell-Brown 2004). The same criticism can be lodged about research focusing on other women of color, as even fewer investigations have been undertaken on Asian American, Latina, and Native American women.

The incorporation of a feminist perspective that insists on viewing multiple identities in conjunction with one another in criminology has aided in moving away from a view that there is something pathological about women of color’s involvement in crime. Generally, feminist scholars assert that social disparities and the “get tough on crime” policies are major factors explaining the high numbers and rates of women of color found in the criminal justice system. Worsening economic conditions are seen as a particularly important factor in the criminal activity of women of color (Diaz-Cotto 2006; Johnson 2003b). There is ample research that shows there is a connection between one’s social class and criminal behavior where those who encompass the more impoverished economic statuses in society commit more crimes than those who occupy middle or affluent statuses (Joseph 2006). Discrimination due to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and gender is also purported to determine the inequitable representation of women of color in the criminal justice system (Diaz-Cotto 2006). Finally, similar to White women in the criminal justice system, a high proportion of women of color engaging in crime have experienced abuse and violence by family members, intimate partners, and others. Feminist scholars focusing on women of color – and placing women of color at the center of the analysis – highlight these factors as major contributors to the overrepresentation of women of color in crime and the criminal justice system.

Feminist and intersectionality theoretical analyses of the criminal experiences of women also place considerable emphasis on the effects of stereotypes. Positive and negative images abound when considering women of color. However, for some women of color, the adverse images surpass the more endearing images. Feminist scholars assert that stereotypes and negative images of African American women are a major contributing factor to their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system (Johnson 2003a). These include images of African American women as jezebels, sapphires, welfare queens, crack whores, matriarchs, and masculine and emasculating (Collins 2000; Goodwin 2003; Johnson 2003a; Huey and Lynch 1996; Young 1986). In the 1986 article “Gender Expectations and Their Impact on Black Female Offenders and Victims,” Vernetta Young argues that criminologists’ treatment of African American female offenders focuses primarily on how they are not like other women offenders and on the similarities between crimes committed by African American women and men. Huey and Lynch (1996) also discuss how stereotyping of African American women dictates how mainstream criminology has interpreted African American women’s participation in crime. One example is the view of African American women as matriarchs or welfare mothers; these views support the ideology that the African American woman is responsible for all crimes committed by African Americans because she has emasculated men and is an inadequate parental figure for her sons who will, therefore, become irresponsible men. Assumptions are also made about other women of color and then connected to their offending behaviors, which will be highlighted in some research discussed in this research paper.

Nature Of Offending

As indicated above, there is a need for more research in criminology that considers, simultaneously, the intersection of race and gender and the comparisons between groups by disaggregating the study subjects. Although statistical information regarding the race of women under correctional supervision in the United States is made available from government sources, few additional statistical data are readily available that provide a comparison by race among women offenders within large data resources such as the FBI’s Uniform Crime

Reports and the National Crime Victimization Survey. While statistical information on variations between females and males and between certain race groups is included in these data sources, only a small amount of information is provided on gender-by-race comparisons by the US federal government agency that releases these data. However, some criminological research, which will be detailed later, has utilized these datasets to analyze gender by race. Further, a few other statistical analyses have been performed to gauge the overrepresentation of women of color in criminal offending and involvement in the criminal justice system. For instance, a study analyzing the Monitoring the Future survey of high school students across the United States found race/gender variations among girls’ reports of their use of violence (Goodkind et al. 2009). African American girls were found to have reported engaging in fights at greater rates than girls of other races. The fighting rates reported by African American girls demonstrated that they are as likely to report fighting as Asian American boys and White boys (but less than Black, Latino, and Native American boys). Latinas, Whites, and Asian Americans succeeded African American girls’ rates of fighting, and Native American girls reported the lowest rates of fighting.

Studies such as the Monitoring the Future survey provide some indication of prevalence of violence, showing differences by race and gender, but feminist and intersectional theoretical analyses provide explanations for the higher reported rates of violence among certain girls of color – in particular, African American girls. Nikki Jones’s (2010) ethnography of the lives of African American girls who engage in violence affords a nuanced understanding of the social forces that propel certain girls to use violence. Examining African American girls living in lowincome urban neighborhoods that experience a high level of street violence, Jones found their lives revolved around what she identifies as the three Rs: reputation, respect, and retaliation. Jones’s Black feminist analysis dissects the negotiations that African American girls in violent urban settings must make between their identity, gender expectations, and the violence with which they are confronted in their communities.

Regina Arnold’s (1990) research also provides insight into the way certain life conditions, beginning in childhood, lead some African American girls to engage in violence and other offending behaviors. Utilizing a feminist and intersectionality perspective, Arnold considered the social forces of patriarchy, racism, and economic marginality. In her study of 50

African-American women in a city jail and 10 African American women in a state prison, Arnold discovered that gender-and class-based oppression, along with being blamed by criminal justice officials for their own victimization, was a pattern among the women she interviewed. This criminalization, while the women were young girls, was exacerbated by the women’s “structural dislocation” from their families and their schools during their formative years. The women’s young lives were besieged with sexual and other physical abuse, poverty, and inadequate educational experiences. This dislocation and lack of a stable familial alternative propelled the women into deviant and delinquent behaviors early in their lives, such as running away from home, thievery, and truancy. Criminal labels were applied to these women from their youth through adulthood. As the women continued engaging in criminal behaviors when they became adults, addiction to drugs became another obstacle to overcome. In sum, from an early age, the women in Arnold’s study engaged in delinquent behaviors as an “active resistance” to their victimization.

Beth Richie’s (1996) research also utilized a feminist perspective to reveal circumstances that lead women to crime. Richie explored the effect of abuse as a pathway to jail or prison for African American women and, in so doing, developed a theory of “gender entrapment.” Richie explains why the women remained in abusive relationships and how being in these relationships led to women committing criminal acts by highlighting the compounding effect of African American women’s experiences with marginalization in public arenas. Utilizing comparison groups of African American women in jail who had not been battered and battered White women, Richie concluded that battered African American women participated in criminal offenses as (a) a means of delaying further violence by their intimate partners, (b) an extension of their loyalty to the African American men who abused them because of a sense of racial identity and unity and the need to maintain some semblance of closeness with their abuser, (c) a perception of the duty to protect African American men from racism they experience in the public sphere, and (d) a way to get arrested and incarcerated in order to escape the violence from their intimate partners, for at least a short period of time.

Like Richie, other feminist scholars have also considered the outcomes of intimate partner violence against women of color. There is a notable scarcity of research on Asian and Asian Americans pertaining to criminality. Nevertheless, two feminist scholars who studied intimate partner violence among Asians and Asian Americans suggest that their violence is often a reaction to victimization by their partners, and it is criminalized within many US jurisdictions. Margaret Abraham (2000) considered South Asian immigrant women’s resistance in her research. Although few women in Abraham’s study used physical violence against their batterers, Abraham demonstrates how the emotional captivity of abuse, coupled with cultural standards of womanhood, can be a catalyst to resistance that would be deemed criminal behavior by many state laws.

In her study of Vietnamese immigrant women who had been abused by their intimate partners, Hoan N. Bui (2004) documents the women’s legal consequences for physically defending themselves from their abusive partners. The implementation of mandatory arrest laws throughout the United States has had unintended outcomes for battered women who fight back. As evidenced in Bui’s study, battered women were arrested because of physical evidence visible on their partners and many of the partners’ exaggeration or misrepresentation of the incident. There are additional consequences for women of color. Bui demonstrates that the women’s gender, race, class, and immigrant status place them at a disadvantage for receiving the assistance they need by considering them as offenders instead of victims.

Few scholars focus on female Native Americans’ involvement in the criminal justice system as perpetrators of crime. However, like the approaches with Asian and African American women, the feminist and intersectionality work on violence against Native American women can be used as a basis to contemplate offending among Native American women. Native American activist and feminist scholar Andrea Smith (2005) provides a macrolevel approach to Native American women’s involvement in criminal activity by focusing on state-sponsored and corporate-sponsored violence against Native American women. As with other research that has found a correlation between victimization and future offending among women, criminogenic effects of state and corporate violence may too compel criminal activity among Native American women.

The effects of drug use also play a role in women’s offending. Self-report surveys, such as the Monitoring the Future survey, provide some indication of variations in drug use by race and gender. White girls had the highest reporting rates for alcohol use. Native American girls reported the next highest rate of alcohol use, followed by Latinas, Asian Americans, and then African Americans. For marijuana use, Native American girls reported the highest use, closely followed by White girls. Latinas, African Americans, and Asian Americans (in descending order) reported the lowest levels of marijuana use. Other research, conducted with women in prison, has shown that in comparison to other women who are imprisoned, Latinas are five to eight more times likely to abuse alcohol, ten times more likely to abuse drugs, and 27 times more likely to use cocaine (Covington 1998).

Feminist and intersectionality approaches provide important interpretations of these racial differences in drug use and participation in illicit drug markets. Lisa Maher’s (1997) ethnography of women drug users considers the intersectional identities of her study informants. Importantly,

Maher goes beyond the Black/White binary of racial analysis by including the experiences of Latinas and White women. Women in the study, mostly Latina, were typically involved in the consumption of drugs, in dealing drugs when men were found to be scarce due to arrests, and in sex work to keep up their addictions. Although identities of age, immigrant status, and familial and neighborhood ties affected the way labor was divided in the drug and sex markets, Maher asserts that race and gender were the most salient factors. Race and gender determined the extent of the earnings for women working in the illicit drug and sex trades, and White women sex workers initially were able to demand, and receive, higher rates for sex work than women of color.

Arrest And Prosecution

According to federally collected statistics, there has been a steady decrease in the overall US crime rate over the past couple decades; however, there has been a significant rise in the number of arrests and incarceration of women in the United States criminal justice system. The War on Drugs has had a more detrimental effect on women than on men with regard to the substantial rise in arrests and incarceration rates of women for drug-related offenses (Diaz-Cotto 2006). This is evident in that between 1980 and 2009, the female arrest rates tripled for drug possession (a 225 % increase) and doubled for drug sales or manufacturing (a 237 % increase) (Snyder 2011). Male drug arrest rates also increased, but at a lower rate, with a 104 % increase in male arrests for drug possession and a 205 % increase for drug sales or manufacturing. Snyder (2011) concludes that the male arrest rate for drug sale and manufacturing in 2009 was 68 % above the male arrest rate in 1980, while the female drug sale and manufacturing arrest rate in 2009 was 123 % above the 1980 rate. Women and girls have also been arrested at greater rates than males for other offenses. In 1980, females accounted for approximately 12 % of the arrests for aggravated assault. The proportion of female arrests for aggravated assault increased to 29 % in 2009, which is double the rate in 1980. In contrast, the male arrest rates for aggravated assault in 1980 and in 2009 are similar. However, when examining the growth rate in arrests for aggravated assaults between 1980 and the peak year of 1995, female arrests for this offense increased by 150 % compared with a 63 % increase in male arrests. Similar arrest trends are evident for robbery, simple assault, and larceny-theft.

Certainly, women of all races have been significantly affected by policy and legal enhancements that have ensnared droves of women in the criminal justice system. However, statistical evidence indicates overrepresentation in arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates of women of color. Some research has established that African American women have a greater likelihood than White women of being arrested and charged for more serious crimes (ChesneyLind 1997; Greenfield and Snell 1999). Analyzing the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for three large states (California, Florida, and New York), Coramae Richey Mann’s (1995) research also delineates variations in arrest rates of women by race. Women of color were found to have been arrested more frequently for violent crimes such as aggravated assault and robbery. Public order crimes, such as alcohol-and drug-related offenses and sex work, were the most frequent arrests for White, African American, and Latina women. However, Latinas and African American women have been arrested for sex work at higher rates than their proportion of the general population. The most frequent types of offenses Native American women are arrested for were drunkenness, thefts, and driving under the influence of alcohol. Only one of the three states (California) reported arrest data for Asian American women. The most frequent arrests for Asian American women were for theft-related offenses, while drug-related offenses were among the least frequent arrests. It is important to note that there are different ways crime is depicted based on race and gender depending on the source of information.

The experiences of women of color in the criminal justice system have been afforded growing attention from feminist scholars. One study addresses the utilization of the cultural defense tactic that can either reduce accountability or exacerbate punishment for Asian Americans. Legal scholar and critical race feminist Leti Volpp (1994) provides an extensive account of the influence cultural defenses can have on court cases specifically within the Asian American population. The case of People v. Helen Vu is one in which Vu is a female defendant who strangled her son with a cord from a window blind. She was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and given 15 years to life in prison. When the defense counsel constructed a cultural defense case, the court ruled that the defendant committed the crime out of her own volition and ignored the defense attorney’s argument that it was connected to her Asian background (Volpp 1994). Consequently, Vu did not meet her gender stereotype, which is to take care of her son as a mother is supposed to, and since she deviated from this role, she received a severe sentence (Volpp 1994). Volpp suggests that this case study shows the importance gendered stereotypes and expectations can play in a case and that if one were to meet those stereotypes, the less severe the punishment will be.

Involvement in drug markets is the leading crime for which women are charged and convicted. Scholars have researched the influence that culture can play on the verdicts Latina women receive. Holmquist (1997) analyzed the significance of Latinas meeting cultural expectations of docility and passivity to their partners and their involvement in the drug market. Two case studies were used, United States v. Castaneda and United States v. Avila, to exemplify how women are either taken advantage of by their partners or their naıvete´ of the work they are doing for their partners. The court found Maria Avila and Ana Reyes responsible for the distribution of cocaine and laundering money, even though their defense team argued that they were blindly following Jose Reyes. However, in Leticia Castaneda’s case the court dropped her possession of six firearms to one because her defense was that she had no idea firearms were involved in the narcotics drug trafficking ring, and she was only following orders from her partner. Conclusively, the cultural defense upholds racial and gender stereotypes of Latina women when convicted of criminal acts; these stereotypes can either assist or be detrimental to these women. Feminist perspectives on Latinas’ involvement in criminal activities have revealed that Latinas are often rebelling against the subordinate roles that society, in general, expects them to play (Diaz-Cotto 2006).

Sentencing And Incarceration

The number of women incarcerated, regardless of race, has gone up by 700 % since 1977, but Latinas and African American women make up 70 % of this population (Tapia 2010). While White women have a greater chance of being placed on probation after arrest and conviction, women of color are disproportionately sentenced to prison (Greenfield and Snell 1999). Almost two-thirds of women who are incarcerated are women of color, while two-thirds of women who are on probation are White women (Bloom et al. 2004). On December 31, 2009, one in every 703 Black women and one in every 1,356 Latinas were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons, while one in every 1,987 White women was incarcerated.

The War on Drugs in the United States, beginning in the 1970s, contributed to the spike in incarceration rates of women due to the requirement of mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, which lead to lengthy prison sentences served by convicted drug offenders (Levy-Pounds 2007; Shelden 2004). Due to women’s lower status in drug organizations, they often do not have enough information to bargain with to reduce their sentencing when questioned about the drug operation or identifying the drug ringleaders (Sokoloff 2005; Morash 2006). Women, in general, are more likely than men to be given mandatory minimum sentences for much smaller quantities of drugs (Sokoloff 2005). Currently, about 40 % of women in prison are in prison for drug-related crimes, with a majority of these being women of color (Shelden 2004). Juanita Diaz-Cotto (2006) reports that, in New York, Latinas were more likely to be imprisoned for drug-related offenses than were Latinos (males). Mann’s (1995) study found racial disparities among African American, Latina, and White women regarding drug-related offense sentencing. Of the women in the study, which compared several states, 18.7 % of them were Latinas in California who had been arrested for drug offenses and represented 26.1 % of women imprisoned for drug offenses. African American women comprised 30.5 % of arrests and 34.1 % of prison inmates for drug offenses. While African American women and Latinas were overrepresented in prison for drug offenses, White women comprised 48.5 % of arrests, but only 38.3 % of prison sentences. It is evident that the consequences of the War on Drugs campaign disproportionately affected impoverished women of color and their families (Levy-Pounds 2007). As such, some feminist researchers have declared the War on Drugs as a war on women of color (Bush-Baskette 1998).

There are a small number of studies that have looked at the number of Native American females incarcerated, and official prison statistics have been challenged by some scholars as inaccurately depicting the number of Native American females incarcerated. According to one study (Abril 2003), incarcerated Native American women were undercounted in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. Data retrieved from the institution through responses to open-ended questions distributed to all of the women in the facility revealed discrepancies between the numbers of self-identified Native American women and the numbers reported by the prison. Results from the survey showed that the agency reported there were only two Native Americans, while 255 reported that they self-identified themselves as Native American. This finding is important to the criminal justice system because officials believe Native American women are an insignificant proportion of the prison population and therefore warrant little research attention (Abril 2003; Russell-Brown 2004). Though occurring at a slower rate than feminist research on African American women, feminist scholars have begun to consider the lack of research on the criminal justice system involvement of Native American, Latina, and Asian American women.


Feminist scholarship has shifted its theoretical perspective to be more inclusive of girls’ and women’s racial backgrounds and the influence this ascribed status can have on social attainment, or detainment. Women of color are in a unique position where social stereotypes and images and bias can influence arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates. It is essential to consider the experiences of women of color offenders from a feminist perspective in order to understand some of the unique ways in which they are propelled into criminal behavior and to help explain their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.


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