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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature

The Patterns Of Violent Crime By Women

The extent of violent crime by women
Sentencing violent offenders
Is violent crime by women increasing?
Race and social class

Sex differences in rates of violence by men and women are consistent, with men outnumbering women by a very large margin. This is so across countries, over time, at all ages, and in relation to different types of violence. This relates to all types of violent or aggressive behaviour, including bullying in schools, in sports, on the street, in the home, among hospital patients or prison populations. The only exceptions are the recent recognition of greater parity (but not equality) between rates of domestic homicide among black men and women in the USA, and in child abuse in the home.

Considerable disputes have also centred on the extent to which women use violence against partners in the home compared with men. The weight of opinion is that men's violence against partners is much more frequent, extensive and serious for women than women's violence against their partners (Dobash, Dobash, Wilson & Daly 1992; Wilson and Daly 1992, 1993; Reiss and Roth 1993). This issue is considered later in the review.

In terms of recorded criminal violence in the USA in 1991, 89% of all those arrested for violent offences were male and 11% women (FBI, 1991 reported in Reiss and Roth, 1993). In England and Wales in 1989, 89% of all violent offences were committed by men and 11% by women (Heidensohn, 1992).

In Canada in 1991 88% of all those charged with violent crime were men, and 12% women. This amounted to 110,000 charges against men, compared with 13,000 against women (Statistics Canada reported in Johnson and Rodgers, 1993).

The extent of violent crime by women

In Canada, Criminal Code classifications of violent crime include assaults ranging from less serious offences such as threats to use violence, or pushing or shoving, through serious attacks which result in physical injury; sexual assaults; robbery which may involve a threat to use force, a display of a weapon, use of a weapon and actual physical force; abduction; infanticide, attempted murder, murder and manslaughter. Most violent crime, 58% overall, consists of charges classified as minor assaults. Only 13% involves more serious assaults, 11% sexual assault, 11% robbery, and 7% `other' including 0.24% murder or manslaughter (Statistics Canada 1994).

Overall, women are more likely to be charged with minor assaults than men. Very few are charged with robbery and fewer still sexual assault (a pattern which is similar in the USA (Reiss and Roth 1993; Steffensmeier, 1995)). Among both men and women charges for murder or manslaughter are rare, and were laid against 486 men in 1991 and 48 women. However, a major difference is in their relationship to the victim. Among women charged with homicide in 1993 71% of the victims were related to the offender domestically, compared with 24% of the men (Statistics Canada, 1994b).


Sentencing violent offenders

No national data on court sentencing is currently available in Canada. What information does exist, suggests that the majority of women found guilty of violent offences receive a non custodial sentence, a small proportion receive a provincial sentence of less than two years imprisonment, and a much smaller proportion a federal sentence of two years or more.

Thus in 1991 XXXX women were sentenced to probation for violent offences, some 900 women were admitted to provincial prisons under sentence for a violent offence (about 10% of all admissions) and around 150 to the federal system (based on figures in Johnson and Rodgers 1993; Statistics Canada 1993; and the Offender Information System, CSC). An Ontario survey suggested that 19% of women in both provincial institutions and under community supervision in 1991 had been convicted or charged with a violent offence (Shaw 1994). This underlines the contention that most violent charges against women are not seen to be of a serious nature nor represent a threat to the public.

While the number of women who receive federal sentences is very small, more than half of the women in the federal population will have a conviction for a violent offence. In 1989 of the 203 federally sentenced women in prison 42% (85) were serving a sentence for murder, attempted murder or manslaughter, and 27% (55) for robbery or assaults (Shaw 1992). The findings from that study, as well as those from many other reviews of women offenders suggest that as a group, women convicted of violent offences differ considerably from their male counterparts in terms of the types of violence involved, the reasons for their offence, their relationships to their victim, their offence histories, their level of risk to the public, their likelihood of committing further violence, and their own experience of violence in childhood and as adults (Immarigeon & Chesney Lind 1992; Reiss and Roth, 1993).


Is violent crime by women increasing?

Over the past twenty years in Canada, the rate of charges for violent crimes (as well as other crimes) has increased generally, among men, women and young offenders. While still a relatively small proportion of all offences, violence has increased at a faster rate than property and other offences. The increase has been slightly greater among women than men, largely because the numbers of women committing violent offences is proportionately so small.

In 1970 8.1% of all charges against women under the Criminal Code were for violent offences. By 1991 violence had risen to 13.6% of all charges against women (Johnson and Rodgers, 1993). While there has been an increase in violent crimes by women, the numbers of women convicted of violence remains still well below that of men, and the majority involves minor assaults. In the US, Steffensmeier (1995) has examined the increases in arrests for violence by men and women between the 1960's and 1990's and concludes that, relative to men, women showed a slight increase in arrests for minor assaults. For serious violent offences (robbery, aggravated assault or murder) however, the rate for women remained stable, while that for men increased.

Twenty years ago Freda Adler (1975) argued that the women's liberation movement would result in greater equality between the sexes and predicted an increase in aggressive criminal behaviour by women. A number of studies in the 1980's framed their work around an assumption that women's contribution to violent crime would increase for this reason (eg. Balthazar and Cook 1984; Girouard 1988; Robertson, Bankier & Swartz, 1987). Nevertheless, as many more studies have indicated, the majority of the increase in women's offending has been in terms of property offences and can be explained in terms of their increasing poverty (Carlen 1988; Box and Hale 1983; Naffine 1987; Jurik & Winn 1990; Johnson and Rodgers 1993; Steffensmeier 1995).

Liberation and equality do not mean much to single young women with children, or with little prospect of reasonably paid legitimate employment (Naffine 1987). They mean even less to Aboriginal women (or black women in the USA) growing up in an increasing violent environment (Sugar and Fox 1990; LaPrairie 1993; Moyer 1992). Such factors Robertson et al., (1987) did not consider in their study of female offenders in Winnepeg Remand Centre, many of whom are likely to be Aboriginal. Not surprisingly they `failed to identify what had been described as the "new female criminal" '.

Explanations for the increase in violent offences (by both genders) cannot be easily verified. It has been suggested that part of the increase is because Canadian society, along with others, has become less tolerant of violence and consequently more willing to press charges for violent behaviour, particularly the less serious threats or assaults (Bala 1994; Stanko 1994; Statistics Canada 1994). In the case of women, this may also reflect a decline in a traditional reluctance to prosecute women (Chunn and Gavigan 1991). At a more general level, Thomas (1993) cites changing work patterns, child-rearing, and marital and divorce patterns as likely to induce more stress in the lives of women and men and lead to more anger and aggression on a daily basis.


Race and social class

The effects of race and social and economic class cannot be separated from issues of gender in considering violent crime. A number of American studies have pointed to the higher rates of violent crime among black populations than white (eg. Simpson 1991; Reiss and Roth 1993; Arnold 1990). Others have noted that black women are much more likely to be charged with violent offences in the USA than other women (McClain 1982-83; Mann 1990b; Simpson 1991).

Similarly, in Canada, Aboriginal men and women are more likely to be charged and incarcerated for violent offences than non-Aboriginals (Moyer 1992; LaPrairie 1992; LaPrairie 1993).

Since data have been collected on comparative offences of incarcerated Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women, they have consistently revealed that Aboriginal women are incarcerated for more violent crimes than non-Aboriginal women. (LaPrairie 1993 p.236)

This has occurred during a period of increasing marginalization and the disintegration of traditional Aboriginal society and culture (Sugar & Fox 1990; Shkilnyk 1985; LaPrairie 1992). As LaPrairie (1993) underlines:

`A broad range of economic, socio-cultural, and legal factors associated with being Aboriginal and female in a male-dominated, non-Aboriginal society, contribute to Aboriginal women coming into conflict with the law. The violent behaviour often demonstrated by Aboriginal women offenders is a product of historical socio-economic forces and background factors. The undermining of traditional Aboriginal roles and values, the acceptance of violence in society, discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act, and tensions in male-female relationships have conspired to regulate many Aboriginal women to a marginalized status.' (p. 243)



In relation to women, therefore, it is has always, and continues to be important to stress:

A. that women commit proportionately far less violent crime than men;

B. that violent offences constitute a very small proportion of all female offending;

C. that the types of violent offences with which women are charged tend to be less serious than among men;

D. that the majority of homicides by women involve family members;

E. that most increases in women's offending are accounted for by property offences, and any increases in violent offences by minor assaults;

F. that race and social class must also be considered with gender in understanding women's violence.