Women uniquely vulnerable in criminal justice system

By Lenore E. Walker, Ed.D., Carlye Conte, B.A., & Stephen Grabner, B.A.
December 1, 2014



female prisonersAs of 2012, women made up about 7 percent of the states’ prison population and 6 percent of the federal prison population, with an estimated total of 108,772 women in prison in the United States. When women in jail, on probation or on parole are included, there are over 1 million women involved within the various stages of the criminal justice system.

While these percentages may seem small compared to male rates, female incarceration rates are growing at a rate about one-and-a-half times that of men. This necessitates an understanding of women’s interaction within the criminal justice system, specifically to understand how their experiences may be inherently different than their male counterparts.

In order to effectively reduce the number of women incarcerated, an emphasis must be placed on the unique female vulnerabilities that lead them to become incarcerated in the first place and subsequently impact all their interactions with the criminal justice system.

Histories of trauma and abuse, mental illness and substance abuse are all risk factors that increase the likelihood of criminal activity and subsequent criminal justice involvement. For example, while over one third of incarcerated women have been victims of domestic violence, about 90 percent of female-perpetrated homicides involved a male partner who was previously abusive.

Women who commit violent crimes that have a history of interpersonal violence may be motivated by a need to defend themselves or because they are under the control of an abusive partner. Additionally, many women use substances to self-medicate and mask symptoms associated with mental illness or traumatic experiences. For the majority of women, involvement in illegal activity is not motivated by criminal gain. Instead, it stems from vulnerability as a result of previous life experiences.

In looking at the statistics of the current criminal justice population, it is clear that these life experiences are having strong adverse impacts. It has been estimated that upward of 95 percent of women within the criminal justice system have experienced some type of physical and/or sexual abuse, and up to 98 percent have been exposed to some form of trauma.

Additionally, incarcerated women are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness and substance abuse when compared to men. More than 50 percent of incarcerated women meet criteria for a substance use disorder and upward of 70 percent have some form of mental illness.

Female offenders are not only victimized prior to involvement with the criminal justice system; they are also disproportionately re-victimized during incarceration by both staff and other inmates. Women report inmate-initiated sexual victimization at a rate nearly twice that of men; female victims account for a third of prison incidents and 67 percent of jail incidents in which sexual misconduct is initiated by staff.

Rates of victimization are also significantly higher for inmates with mental illness or prior histories of sexual abuse. In addition to direct victimization, incarceration in and of itself can serve as an environmental stressor and often leads to the exacerbation of psychopathology.

Many prisons lack the necessary resources to provide comprehensive treatment programs to address the entire spectrum of issues faced by women, which may leave women worse off after being incarcerated than when they first arrived. It is commonly quipped that prison facilities have become the new psychiatric hospitals, but statistics underline this as a reality; the number of mentally ill in prison is nearly 10 times the number of those being treated in state psychiatric hospitals.

This raises the question: Are those who are suffering from mental illness and related psychiatric histories more prone to criminal activity or are they just more likely to end up behind bars? Also, is it possible these vulnerabilities not only influence women who are guilty, but also those who are innocent? Our graduate student research team has begun to shed light on the similarities, and more importantly, the differences, between men and women who falsely confess in order to better understand the impact of individual vulnerabilities within the criminal justice system. The majority of current information on false confessions focuses on men, presupposing gender similarities and largely ignoring the plight of women.

This discrepancy was further highlighted at the recent APA Council of Representatives meeting in which recommendations for changing police interrogations were passed in order to reduce the occurrence of false confessions.

However, Council members also voted to request encouragement of more research within the next three years on the inclusion of women as a vulnerable group along with data on those with other diversity issues such as multicultural and sexual orientation. This action accentuates the need for additional studies that emphasize gender differences within the legal system even with women taking responsibility for crimes they did not commit.

Through our research at Nova Southeastern University, we have identified 80 cases of women who have falsely confessed to a crime. By analyzing those cases, we have begun to uncover distinct influences that make women more vulnerable to manipulation when facing criminal charges.

The high rates of mental illness, substance abuse, intellectual disability and histories of trauma and abuse influenced all aspects of the women’s cases – from arrest to conviction and incarceration. These women were particularly susceptible to coercive interrogation tactics used to elicit a confession, such as minimization, maximization, presentation of false evidence, unfounded threats and false promises of leniency.

In many cases, a woman took responsibility for a crime committed by an abusive partner out of fear for herself and her children or even as an attempt to protect the abuser. Also, direct or indirect threats to children motivated many of the false confessions, a finding which is unique to cases of women. These findings only begin to illustrate the importance of gender dynamics within the criminal justice system and the psychological, social, and environmental factors that differentially influence women.

As psychologists, it is our responsibility to understand the unique influences women face and how these influences shape women’s experiences. If mental illness, substance abuse and histories of trauma and abuse remain unaddressed, prisons will continue to act as a revolving door for women.

Therefore, it is essential that these vulnerabilities are identified within the initial stages of involvement in the criminal justice system. In order to effectively rehabilitate incarcerated females, we must acknowledge the factors that led them to become incarcerated in the first place. The identification and understanding of these experiences are not only important in reducing female involvement in criminal activity, but are also fundamental in preventing the wrongful conviction of innocent women.

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